In the Art of Austin's Latino Community, Borders Don't Exist
Is there a Latino visual art movement in Austin? Most observers would nod in the affirmative. In the airport, Fidencio Duran's images greet all comers. Two of the most distinctive buildings south of the Capitol on Congress Avenue, La Peña and Mexic-Arte, earn their distinction from Latino visuals. Elsewhere in town, the exterior wall of Half-Price Books' Guadalupe store and the garden of Allison Elementary School double as exhibits for Mexican artists Pio Pulido and Patricia Greene, respectively.
But just because the artists named above share Latino roots doesn't mean they share the same aesthetic or visual style or even cultural values. During a recent interview with the Houston-based magazine ArtLies, Mari Carmen Ramirez, curator of Latin American Art at UT's Blanton Museum of Art, reacted to marketing vultures hovering around her field with the following observation: "The first thing I would like to clarify is that there is no such thing as a 'Latin American' art. Latin America encompasses more than 20 countries with extremely diverse racial, ethnic, and social compositions, histories, and backgrounds," she said. Ramirez's words merit reflection.
In literature, some critics point to a common vision among Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, and Mexicans Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes; these writers share mental labyrinths and spiritual visitations. Stylistically, however, they all move in different directions. Connie Arismendi, an Austinite with Filipino and Mexican roots, sees a parallel with Latin American visual artists. "I think many Latino artists share a mission: to promote the work of other Latinos," she says. "There's a lot of support and camaraderie. But as individuals, we each have our own voice, our own point of view, our own political leanings."
"I see the world through my own eyes," says Austin artist Sam Coronado. "I see it through cultural glasses." The print master cites his bicultural heritage as inspiration for his serigraphs. Pieces such as Dos Mundos (Two Worlds) and Pan Dulce (Sweet Bread) benefit from the duality of the Mexican-American. In Pancho Villa and the Cisco Kid, Coronado represents his friend Juan as a child, dressed up like the Cisco Kid beside an image of Pancho Villa in a similar scale, so that the two appear to be captured together by a portraitist.
Art Needs Roots
"When we were kids, everyone would take these pictures, dressed up as cowboys," Coronado says. "Like many American kids, I used to think how great it would be to be one of them, to be a cowboy. Then you realize that this lifestyle was a necessity for Pancho Villa and revolutionaries like him. This picture is combining the dream in the U.S. with the reality in Mexico."
Art defies borders. But art needs roots. Speaking from his home in North Austin, painter Fidencio Duran draws on his ancient heritage. "Latin America has always been a major producer of visual art," he says. "In the Aztec, Toltec, Mayan, and Inca civilizations, visuals are a very important aspect of culture, whether that be architecture or the decorative arts." In Duran's signature piece La Semana Santa (Holy Week, 1989), roots tangle with modernity. A festival parade storms through a Mexican community in Texas. A female Christ in a potato sack carries the cross. She wears a giant halo, a background Ferris wheel. In place of chariots, rusty Fords await the centurions. A cheetah stalks the procession, embodying the painter's racing imagination. In The Visit, a series of panels around Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, Duran invites everyone to his childhood haunts. Elongated figures tell stories, strum guitars, play dominoes, and play volleyball over a clothesline, all the action taking place at the home of Duran's grandmother.
Connie Arismendi also observes personal growth from family roots. One of the centerpieces of Arismendi's April exhibition at Women & Their Work will be the installation El Arbol de Mi Vida (The Tree of My Life). Mirroring poetic images of an autumn tree as a candle stand, the artist roots a nine-foot candle stand in green stone. Black prongs represent the branches. Using pencil, Arismendi has drawn photographic images of at least one member of her family on each candle. Eyes accustomed to seeing detail on canvas will stand on stalks to see classic portraits on a surface as mutable as candle wax.
"The tree holds 28 candles, each a different instance from my life," says Arismendi. "Like my mother and father when they were young, my mother when she was dying, my nieces and nephews, my goddaughter. Candles are very significant in the Catholic faith, they are votive offerings. Also, like life, they are finite, they fade away. The show in April is entitled 'Pasajero,' which means 'traveler' or 'passing.' A lot of my work over the past six years dealt with the idea of human frailty and transience, life as ephemeral."
To Mexico City native Pio Pulido, who, with Sylvia Orozco and Sam Coronado, is one of the founders of Mexic-Arte Museum, roots mean a direct line from a Mexican master. He relives his encounter with genius in a breathless tale. A brazen talent at the age of 15, Pulido received an invitation to attend an artists' conference in Mexico City. At the conference, he found himself in the company of David Alfaro Siquieros. The old master stormed in late, leaped onto a table, and transformed dinner into a raucous debate. The organizer of the conference, a lady half Siquieros' size, reached up to slap him across the face. "Coming from you, that is a flower," said Siquieros.
The master artist even inspired Pulido's choice of a 21st-century medium: acrylic paints. "Siquieros taught Jackson Pollock and all his generation about art," says Pulido. "He made a statement: Contemporary artists need contemporary subjects, contemporary techniques, and contemporary media." Pulido experienced the strength of personal inspiration. This is a torch he wants to pass on to young artists.
United Community, Pio Pulido's exterior mural in the Sixth Ward in Houston, communicates his vision of art as healer in a pair of hands proffering ears of corn to passersby. A multicolored face celebrates the diversity of a district usually represented by negative press. Since the rise and demise of DJ Screw, some people associate youth culture in Houston with drugs and gangstering. Sixth Ward youth defied their reputation by making the acrylic paint and painting the mural with Pulido. This mural may become a community darling like Siquieros' America Tropicale on Olvera Street in Los Angeles.
Community Needs Art
In Austin, an interior mural at a health center at 1111 Cesar Chavez was designed by Pulido and painted by members of a youth employment scheme. Today, Pulido works with Travis County juvenile courts running Project Bridge, which offers young offenders an opportunity to rediscover themselves as artists. A young man named Jorge Rengel exhibited his own art from this project in Austin last year, a beautiful turnaround from a life of crime.
Community needs art. In his painting, Pio Pulido campaigns for his community. Latino Education, an interior mural on the wall of a meeting room in the UT student union, displays the horror of migration as a naked figure makes a lunge from Mexico to the state of Texas, his/her passage lit by red hell, grasping the consolation of literacy in the form of a book. Connection (2000), which shows a phone cable snaking into a Mexican household, may be a defense against cyber-invasion as the Internet seduces friends and neighbors to digits on a screen. Attacks on biotechnology include the acrylic-on-canvas Legacy of Genetic Engineering, which shows a rotting ear of corn inhabited by a mutated moth. Polluted Austin comes under the hammer in Seven Sins for the East Side (1999).
Patricia Greene has shown a similar civic responsibility. In a 1996 show at Mexic-Arte, she explored the quality of Austin's water. The Water Journal consisted of a wall covered with test tubes containing samples of water which Greene and a group of teenagers tested for impurities using chromatography. On an adjoining wall, Greene printed the scheme, indicating what chemical properties a certain color of water would indicate. Nearby, a narrow tube of motor oil hung over a small tank of water, with droplets of oil fed almost imperceptibly into the tank. By the end of the exhibition, the water looked like liquid hell.
The same year, a city of Austin Cultural Contract permitted Greene to experiment with a new medium: animate objects. At the Metz Recreation Center in East Austin, she installed Life-Scape, three large arches made from pruned cedar branches. Local children planted vines around the sinews of the arches which grew to complete the profile of a six-legged, furry creature of fun. In 1998, Greene taught the children at Allison Elementary School the art of mosaic and they made Texas History Path, a stepping stone-by-stepping stone account of the state, culminating in a remembrance stone for a deceased schoolmate.
History has been part of Fidencio Duran's art as well, with the painter striving to honor the past of the Mexican immigrant community on walls across the city and state. In 1996, Fidencio Duran painted three interior murals in acrylic over the entrance of the Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center in East Austin. They pay tribute to the Mexican national holidays September 16 and May 5, but also to the three men who established the Zaragoza Center in the 1920s to host Austin's first licensed fiestas for those days. In the first, Cinco de Mayo, the victorious Mexicans ride from the scene of the Battle of Puebla. The second, La Comité Patriota (The Patriotic Committee), enters the celebrations organized by the Zaragoza Center founders. The third, Diez y Seis (The Sixteenth), narrates the story of the center from its foundation in the 1920s to the present day, with other panels relating the origin of Mexican independence. Just below Hidalgo, the liberator, are Cantinflas, the Mexican comic, and Pedro Armindares, the actor with the 1950s monochrome smiles.
"The first president of the Zaragoza Recreation Center was Amador Candelas, a shoemaker who did a lot of things for the community," says Duran. "He brought the first Spanish-language films from Mexico to Austin. He had connections in the Hancock Opera House. After the English films, at midnight, they would show films in Spanish." With Duran's help, Austin will remember Candelas' gift.
Other forgotten aspects of Texan history inspired Duran's semi-exterior mural at the Biblioteca Las Américas in Mercedes, Texas. Duran's mural, The Last Haven (2000), spans 500 years of the Rio Grande Valley. From the mouth of the river to Laredo, from the Native Americans to labor union protests, everybody and everything moves.
Much of Sam Coronado's professional life has been spent sharing with other artists. Since 1993, he has thrown open the doors of his Montopolis studio and been sharing silkscreen techniques with interested artists in free workshops. Over the past eight years, Coronado's Serie Project has included pieces by Chicanos, Cubans, Brazilians, African-Americans, and Anglos, all displayed together. It reflects the way Coronado looks at art: sin fronteras -- without borders.
The artist relates his choice of medium to his community. As a painter, Coronado dabbled with everything from oils to pastels before he "fell into screen printing." Serigraphic (silkscreen) printing transformed his career, becoming his preferred medium 12 years ago. "I see silkscreen printing as the most blue-collar art medium. In terms of the Chicano movement, it was a very important medium for protesters in the Seventies. Anyone could set up a screen in their garage and have two or three hundred signs in the morning. Most other print processes require large presses."
Sam Coronado experiments with style. Coronado designs both abstract and representative prints. Sometimes primary colors contrast, sometimes everything fades into the same soft hue. Dos Mundos features two ancient heads facing each other, their tribal regalia appearing to grow organically out of the grass behind. Between them floats a globe which might be the planet Earth. In Sufrimiento (Suffering), a flaming face swallows a blue face. Pan Dulce, a print which became the cover for the first edition of a French novel, comes from a double perspective. A lengthened shadow of one table bearing a coffee cup falls in the opposite direction to the shadow of some sweet bread and its table. Intersecting shadows form a V, and a bizarre symmetry emerges as if the two tables mirror and distort each other's image. In The Virgen, Coronado deadpans a classic reproduction of the Virgen de Guadalupe.
Art Frees Minds
"My style depends on what inspires me," says Coronado. "The approach I use depends on the subject I work off. Like the way people walk and talk, an artist's style is inherent, not planned. A part of growing and developing is experimenting with media and experimenting with how far you can take a medium. Today with so many different materials and so many different cultures available to artists, it's a shame that some critics think that you should be limited to one particular style."
Art can't be bound. Its very nature inspires new approaches, new styles, experimentation. Connie Arismendi makes innovation her business. In Desde el Mar de Recuerdos (From the Sea of Remembrance), a serigraphic print she completed for the Women & Their Work exhibition, Arismendi encourages people to question the stability of their surroundings by situating human couples amongst fish and swirling eddies of water. Does her inspiration come from questioning the role of the human on this planet? "Inspiration comes from many things," she allows. "The process of making art, the creative challenge is what I enjoy, that's what keeps me going back to the studio."
A stimulus to Arismendi's artistic growth recently came from an exhibition in the Austin Museum of Art. "Elizabeth Ferrer curated a show with the works of Laura Anderson Barbata. That show was fantastic; it really affected me. Last year, I got to do a show with Laura Anderson Barbata in Wisconsin." Arismendi likes to exhibit in alternative spaces like La Peña and Women & Their Work as well as public galleries. "Alternative spaces tend to show work that is more experimental."
Studying the paintings of Picasso and Da Vinci and the photographs of Scotsman Edward Muybridge, Fidencio Duran brings more and more movement to his acrylic murals and canvases. Muybridge became the first photographer to capture a horse with four legs off the ground. In Los Matones (The Killers), Duran could be the first painter to capture four brothers in four different worlds -- acting, stilts, bow and arrow, and catapult. Duran delights in diverging images; in his latest work for the annual La Peña fundraiser Toma Mi Corazón (Take My Heart), one boxer punches another inside a love-heart.
Pio Pulido reclaims symbols from traditional meanings and allows observers to enjoy their own interpretations. In Metamorphosis for Love, he imagines a butterfly sinister enough for a part in a Jonathan Demme movie: The butterfly devours a flower. With Big Bend (2000), Pulido produces a realistic landscape of rugged beauty. "Sometimes I feel you can paint in two ways," he says. "You paint with eyes to the outside and that is macrocosmos. You paint with your eyes to the inside and that is microcosmos."
"I try everything," said Patricia Greene, "When I came to the U.S., I couldn't afford to buy wool or cotton. So I found wire. I am a weaver and sculptor with copper wire, I have my own language, my own voice."
Greene's life-sized copper-wire statue The Sacrifice, completed in 1992, stands in her East Austin home as a monument to individual expression. An entire body woven using methods associated with wicker. Falling from under the figure's left breast is the sacrifice: a human heart. "She is walking and opening her breast," says Greene. "Every one of us, every day, sacrifices a little to fulfill our goals. Sacrifice is the only way of moving forward to become an artist or a poet or whatever you dream of becoming."
The copper-wire figure achieves three physical dimensions while allowing people to see through it. Most enchanting for its creator is the human shadow the piece casts. A moving lamp makes the shadow of The Sacrifice walk. Last year, Patricia Greene won a prize for her piece The Runaway in the "Time Capsule" exhibition at the ArtPlex. A flowing dress constructed of concrete and fabric, suspended by invisible wire, leaps out of a papier-mché party. A full-blown sculpture steps out of contoured paper, one medium breaks out of another. All the paper characters are made from recycled shopping bags, their printed impurities showing.
"I feel that we are all entangled in relationships and we all want to get out. You see the papier-mâche man behind her, pushing, contorted. She has broken the net. She wears white because she is going to a new world like a virgin. The shoe on the ground is the last thing she leaves behind."
There is no such thing as "an Austin art." From painter Irene Perez-Omer's Russian icons to maverick Regina Vater's video installations, a spectrum awaits discovery. One of the rainbow, Steve Schwake paints rockabilly subjects in Oklahoma colors. "I wonder if Latino artists have to deal with being pigeonholed. I've heard art teachers attributing students' merits to their being Latino, instead of giving the individual credit for making the art," said Schwake.
Art historians will argue over visual art movements. Austin can be proud of a number of visual art communities, Latino and otherwise. But when an artist works, that individual works alone.