Federico Archuleta Has More Murals to Make
The artist who made “‘Til Death Do Us Part” isn’t letting the pandemic stop him from making art
El Federico wasted no time making his feelings known about the pandemic. No sooner had SXSW been canceled and the CDC started circulating guidelines for keeping COVID-19 at bay than the local muralist was in the studio crafting his own message about how to stop the coronavirus spread. He began by taking a classic religious image, Praying Hands by Albrecht Dürer, and tweaking it for the quarantine era: sliding a wet bar of soap between the hands and adding droplets of water running down the sides and bubbles coming out between the fingers. After that, he adapted one of his own images – the graphic portrait of Selena in which the letters of her name form her signature cap – to give the singer a protective mask, on which was printed the phrase "Homie: Stay Home!"
The messages were as clear as anything public health agencies were putting out – "Wash your hands! Don't go out!" – but Federico's murals had the benefit of being creative, a little cheeky, and gorgeous to look at, which is to say they were much more likely to stick in the mind than the words of a government institution, no matter how urgently they were expressed. But then that's why Austin has come to recognize and relish the work of Federico Archuleta. His art sticks in the mind.
Look at his Virgen de Guadalupe. That Catholic icon is one of the most commonly seen and frequently reproduced images in this part of the world, with countless versions by a host of artists. And yet Archuleta has made his unique: simple in style – the detail stripped down to its graphic essentials – but bold in color: the roses surrounding Mary almost lurid in their redness; the radiance shining from behind her more like flames and colored as brightly, whether red, green, or white; and every piece of her clothing a deep, vibrant hue, with the dress's yellow patterning so bright that it seems to be some divine sunlight bursting forth from within her. Whether she's on the exterior wall of Tesoros Trading Company or by the drive-through of El Chilito or tattooed on someone's arm, this Virgen de Guadalupe has a visual power that impresses itself on you.
And how many skulls have we seen conscripted in the service of art? Enough that nowadays they often feel more like a marketable commodity than a primal representation of mortality. And yet, put two of them facing each other, close enough for a skeletal kiss, frame them in a heart and surround them with the phrase "'Til death do us part," and – voila! – that old mortal magic is back. We see in that image both the quick and the dead, our earthly yearning for a lifelong love that nothing can sunder and the one thing that ultimately, inevitably, will. Since Archuleta first painted that image in 2009, people can't get enough of it. He's painted versions all over Austin, created prints that people can buy, given people permission to re-create it for engagements and weddings and, yes, tattoos, and even made a large version that he shipped to Australia for a couple who saw it on a visit to Austin and had to have one in their home Down Under. And as happens when something is really popular, he's been ripped off by the kinds of artists always looking to make a buck off someone else's brilliant work.
Archuleta, though, has no shortage of brilliant work. During his time in Austin – coming up on 20 years – he's graced the city's streetscape with dozens of works: beautiful portraits of Johnny Cash, the Clash, ZZ Top, Buddy Holly, Stevie Ray, Selena, Satchmo, and Doug Sahm, among others; a mural of Bob Dylan holding the lyric cards from his "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video; a Valentine heart full of crayons, one side labeled "LOVER" and the other "FIGHTER"; and an anatomical heart that has valves made of musical instruments, around which is a banner reading "Let's Band Together." (That so much of Archuleta's mural work is music-oriented is no coincidence; he fell in love with rock growing up in El Paso in the Seventies, listening to records on vinyl and studying the album cover art obsessively, and to this day he keeps a turntable and stacks of vinyl records in his garage studio. When he moved to Austin, he was a display artist for Tower Records and had already worked for them in Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Dallas.) Each work is signed "Fe De Rico," but you'd know it was his without that, from his distinctive distillation of images to their graphic essence, the exhilarating colors, the wit, and the masterful stencil work that you see almost nowhere else in town.
Of course, that's the Federico we've grown accustomed to seeing outside, but this month Big Medium is giving Austin an opportunity to see another Federico inside. The exhibition "Adiós, Amén, Hasta Luego" is, at 10 works, hardly large enough to be considered a retrospective, but it nonetheless manages to provide a surprisingly effective look into Archuleta's past and reveal aspects of the artist not necessarily evident in his street art. His stencil portraits of Johnny Cash and Doug Sahm are spot-on representations of the musicians – the kind that when you see them, you go, "That's them" – but as vivid as they are, the three celebrity portraits in this show are on a completely different level. Leading off the exhibition is one of Billie Holiday, rich in the kind of shading and line work not seen in his stencil work. She has a fullness to her that makes her lips as lush as the large gardenia in her hair, that makes her eyes, gazing into some middle distance, appear lost and haunted. To Lady Day's right is the woman with "the most beautiful face in the history of Mexican cinema," María Félix, with a gaze that smolders, possibly as deadly as the rifle she's holding on to; again, the fullness of the image generates a sense of the person represented, of their history, their intent – it's hard to break your gaze away from hers. The third is another star of Mexican film, Pedro Armendáriz, under a broad sombrero, tequila and lime beside him, a playing card in his hands. His eyes are focused on someone – perhaps someone across the card table – and though his face is still, the expression conveys something unexpected has occurred, something that calls for response, and the stillness may quickly give way to action. Obviously, the images are drawn from photographs and film stills, but the degree to which Archuleta has instilled their narratives in his portraits is striking.
What's also striking is the technique. All three use corrugated cardboard as the canvas, which is exposed in certain sections of the painting to create a graphic effect of patterned lines. On Billie Holiday, they work as shadows. On María Félix, they're texture for her shawl. The effect is unusual and dynamic – and unlike anything in Archuleta's other work.
But as you're still marveling at the complexity and depth of these works, the exhibition takes a hard left turn into biker territory and pure pop-culture pleasure. First comes a painting that looks to have been lifted from some underground comix in the Nixon years: It's of a mariachi astride a two-wheeler out of a Texas tall tale (cow skull handlebars, rattlesnake tires, cactus seat, barbed wire chain), and he has his head tilted back and is yelling (in extravagant rock-poster type), "Oye, gringo, bike or take a hike!" Adjacent to that are two black leather jackets with the backs painted with mythic women: Lady Luck, sitting atop a roulette wheel, and a Western Medusa, with rattlesnakes for curls. This is the rock & roll side of Archuleta open full throttle and nods to his upbringing on pop culture in the States (MAD Magazine, Warner Bros. cartoons, that Seventies rock) and contacts later in life (screenprinting T-shirts for soldiers at Fort Bliss, doing the graffiti). But a glance back at the previous paintings, so close to these, shows the El Paso kid who would cross the Rio Grande with his parents to visit relatives in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and soak up the culture there, and the young man who worked in Guadalajara and collected Mexican film posters and calendars. In just a half-dozen works, so much of Federico Archuleta's history and influences are revealed.
That's not to say the exhibition ignores the Federico of today. The stencil work is represented in two of the 10 works, but rather than show us the art as we see it on the streets, the exhibition allows us to see the stencils with which that art is made. The two here – one of Louis Armstrong blowing a trumpet with aerosol paint cans where the valves would be, and the other of the upper third of the beloved Virgen de Guadalupe – are large, framed in wood, with the openings meticulously cut. They have color on them, but what distinguishes them here, what you can see that is less apparent on the graffiti, is the delicate cutting that makes the graffiti possible. It's a kind of sculpture, one we never see on the street art. Getting a look at it here clues us in to what Archuleta has to do to make the art we recognize; it's complicated and, if anything, that adds to one's appreciation of his artistry.
All of this – the work on the streets, the work is this show – may be sufficient to earn your full appreciation of Federico Archuleta's art. But we would be remiss if we didn't mention one more factor that affects what he does as an artist. He has Parkinson's. The symptoms may have been there for five years or so, but he received confirmation in 2018. He was reluctant to make the news public for fear it would affect the amount of work he was receiving, but last fall, he finally felt it was important to tell people, and he made the announcement. The response was supportive, and the artist says he's been busier than ever. But the disease is hard on him. He tires more quickly than he used to, and at times he feels he's painting with a claw instead of a hand. So that's worth keeping in mind the next time you see a new work by El Federico.
Has it slowed him down? Hardly. Last week, Archuleta was in Marfa, restoring a Virgen de Guadalupe he first painted there 12 years ago.
And he's always looking for fresh spaces to leave a message from El Federico. Back in May, he drove down to Laredo and happened to see that the San Augustin Cathedral was being remodeled. "Aaand I couldn't help myself!" Archuleta wrote on his Facebook page. Following the premise that it's better sometimes to ask forgiveness than permission, he left an image of the Praying Washing Hands on the temporary doors to the cathedral. The exhibition title, "Adiós, Amén, Hasta Luego," may sound like a farewell, but incidents like that indicate that El Federico still has a lot of work to make and a lot of messages to spread.
“Adiós, Amén, Hasta Luego” runs through Dec. 5, by appointment Thu-Sat., at Big Medium Gallery in the Canopy complex, 916 Springdale. For more information, visit www.bigmedium.org.