In Raul Guerrero at Art Basel OVR: Portals, Guerrero discusses a group of seminal paintings informed by his experiences navigating cultures as an American of Mexican ancestry in Southern California. Brought together on the occasion of Art Basel OVR: Portals, the works in the presentation address the settlement of this region and the American Southwest more broadly, both in historic and contemporary contexts, through painterly depictions of popular imagery and media. For over four decades, Guerrero’s paintings have been characterized by visual elements pulled from primary sources such as modern Mexican cinema, European art-historical imagery, and Spanish Golden Age literature. His compositions are remixed and annotated to evoke the shifting realities excavated from intricate, often contradictory colonial narratives of the West. Through this process of sourcing, Guerrero utilizes cultural signifiers and etymological strategies as vehicles for understanding personal concepts of self. In this conversation with Julie Niemi, the gallery’s Communications Coordinator, Guerrero explores the varied terrains he navigates as an artist. The themes that unfold will also form the core of Guerrero’s upcoming solo exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery, which opens in July 2021.
If you are interested in purchasing the featured works or inquiring about additional works by Raul Guerrero, please click "INQUIRE" below to email our team. The exhibition will be on view through June 19, 2021, 8:00 am Pacific Time.
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La Selva Boliviana (The Bolivian Jungle), 2021
oil on linen
50 x 37 x 1 1/2 inches
(127 x 94 x 3.8 cm)
To start, can you talk about your relationship to Southern California and the role this plays in your work?
From the beginning, my California roots were already deeply embedded; my father was born in Oxnard, California, and my mother in Mesa, Arizona. My father's parents came to the United States in the 1890s. On my mother's side, her parents lived in Mexico before emigrating to the States, then they went back to Mexico after the revolution, [and] then came back again to the United States. My parents later met here in Southern California in a small town called Brawley, California, which is about fifteen miles north of the border with Mexicali, Mexico.
I was born in 1945. Growing up in California in my youth was incredible visually and experientially; my parents were itinerant farm workers. Therefore, whenever we traveled around California, following the crops, several constants were present, scenic changes from traveling around the state and from visits with family members, many of whom lived in Los Angeles. If we visited relatives in Los Angeles, a shopping trip on Broadway was mandatory. On one of these occasions, I saw a television set for the very first time. The screen was around six inches wide and the console that held it around four by three feet. This experience made an impact on me.
"I guess you could say I'm literally a product of the California environment."
In terms of my work, it wasn't until later, after studying at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, that I began investigating the idea of California and specifically, Southern California and the context I was embedded in. Until then, I didn’t fully understand it.
You just mentioned something about "the context you're embedded in." I'd like to hear you talk more about this sentiment, which comes up often when you describe your work.
Growing up in Southern California as someone of Mexican ancestry, I learned that I was embedded in a cultural environment that had a multiplicity of issues, or various cultural elements happening simultaneously, like shifting realities. For all of us that identified in that way, it was an issue of trying to figure out who you were, if that’s even possible. I was trying to understand and reconcile who I was as someone who was born and raised in the United States, yet lived near the Mexican border. Am I Mexican or American? Also, at the time I was growing up, the integration of Mexican people was not fully there. This was due to various factors, including cultural and economic differences, and most importantly, a lack of formal education—I was the first person in my entire family to graduate from college. Another factor that hindered assimilation was lack of representation in the popular media, Mexican Americans and their experiences were seldom depicted; if they were, it was usually negative. In other words, there were few role models one could identify with. To some degree, things haven’t changed all that much—there’s still little representation of Mexican Americans or Latinos, for that matter, in American popular media, and in my opinion, this includes the art world, too.
I'm curious to hear you talk more about this sense of shifting realities. How does this idea inform this selection of paintings?
Digressing a bit, I’d like to say a few things about the film posters and everything I’ve been immersed in for the last thirty years. It’s something I hadn’t thought about in the past but now believe is part of my self-awareness. It has to do with your question.
When my family moved to National City, California, we made weekly visits to Tijuana for one thing or the other, and at the end of the day, we would return to our home across the border. It seemed like an unremarkable back and forth, but we were actually experiencing a paradigm shift, moving from one reality to another reality. All of us here in Southern California and Northern Mexico were unconsciously experiencing a strange, symbiotic relationship that was affecting our imagination and way of seeing
In Tijuana, one was confronted by 500 years of colonialism and mestizo culture pushing up against the border. You would see artifacts brought up from the interior of Mexico as well as kitsch items created in Tijuana catering to the tourist trade: bongo drums, Mexican jumping beans, serapes, and velvet paintings of Elvis Presley crying, Don Quixote, striped donkeys, the Last Supper, and so on. A cacophony of images that one would never see en masse in Southern California—the place and its images were our Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Southern California, on the other hand, one had Jack in the Box drive-through restaurants with Jack literally jumping out of a box, freeways, Hollywood, surf, and beatnik culture…All these images, these experiences, were an assault on the senses. But I found that this interrelationship was the basis for much of my thinking: I believe the mind is expanded when it’s confronted with differing realities, and that the imagination is sparked in this process.
"That borders affect an individual is not a new idea, but the difference is that this was my own subjectivity experiencing Southern California with a unique set of factors".
The sets of values here that affect your identity are different than in New York or any European city. By extension, the same thing happens when you arrive here from the Midwest or East Coast. You enter a different reality because you're living in California—in Los Angeles and San Diego—Spanish names, you're eating Mexican American food, et cetera. You're living literally in another reality, a Mexican/Latin reality.
If you think about artists that experienced the effect of borders on the imagination, John Baldessari comes to mind. John grew up in National City, about half a mile away from my family home. I believe his inquisitiveness came from growing up where he did, and that the symbiotic nature of Southern California with Mexico inspired him and thus his experimental sensibility. He was a product of his environment.
Circling back to the film posters mentioned very briefly above, can you talk about how your film paintings, which utilize visual devices specific to cinema, address representation (or lack thereof) of a place and its culture? How did these works come about?
While traveling in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I realized that cinema and television had played a big part in my understanding of the history of the region—or rather of the history and visual culture I had imagined were associated with it. But here I was in the real American West, I wondered what the reality is, and what is its history? Then I realized if it’s true for the Black Hills, then what do I really know about the continent itself of pre-, post-, and colonial America? What was the real history and how did it affect me and us? That epiphany happened in 1990 at which point I began making work that directly addressed these questions and their findings.
The first works used the idea of cinema as a starting point; film endings and posters were a graphic vehicle that allowed me present historical topics that I was interested in. Film endings in the golden age of Mexican cinema always ended with “FIN, Es Una Pelicula Mexican,” which of course I was familiar with, and later began making film poster paintings. In general, film posters present a hyped-up take of the movie, especially Mexican film posters. I especially loved the poster idea because I could play with the visuals quite a bit.
Naufragios (Shipwrecks), 2021
oil on linen
50 x 37 x 1 1/2 inches
(127 x 94 x 3.8 cm)
Can you talk about the Naufragios (Shipwreck) (2021) painting in the film poster series? I’m curious about the listing of Indigenous tribes and how that relates to the composition.
The series of Cine Mono film poster paintings began in 2006 and were completed in 2021. Naufragios (Shipwrecks) was inspired by the book of the same title written by a Spaniard, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who was shipwrecked off the coast of Florida in 1527. He eventually made his way from Florida to a Spanish outpost in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico—an eight-year-long trek across the southern United States. During this period, he encountered a varied number of Indigenous tribes. He later wrote a fantastic book about his experiences and observations of the Indigenous tribes he encountered in the region at that time. The painting Naufragios (Shipwrecks) alludes to this man's shipwreck and the Indigenous groups he might have encountered along the journey. I should clarify that he did not meet people from all the tribes listed in the work—that’s just poetic notation on my part to indicate whom he might have met. So, it remains a bit of a speculative composition.
In thinking about this incredible stew of ideas and experiences, I'd like to shift some attention to Las Indias (2006). What I love about this work is that it’s an annotation of Diego Velázquez’s seventeenth-century painting Rokeby Venus (also known as Venus of the Mirror). Can you talk about the way in which you appropriate European art historical imagery as a sort of surface for further mapping?
I was researching the history of Latin America and I did a lot of reading about the Spanish Golden Age of art history and literature. The Spanish empire lasted about 200 years, beginning around 1492 with the discovery of the Americas—a trip funded by Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs of Spain. Columbus came here using the royalty’s money and discovered the islands. Still, the Europeans did not know that the continent of the Americas existed for another twenty years. They heard stories about a vast land, but nobody on that first expedition explored the place. Once Hernán Cortés landed in Veracruz, Mexico, and went to Mexico City and discovered a city loaded with gold, it brought everybody over, igniting further exploration.
Las Indias depicts an image of the beginning of the decline of the empire, which is when Velázquez painted the Rokeby Venus, completed sometime between 1647 and 1651. Inscribed on Venus’s body—as if it's a cartographic map are the routes of all these various explorations that took place on the North American continent—as if she, the “Venus of the Mirror,” is the continent itself. Surrounding her are images, or scenes, that the Spanish conquistadors would have encountered during their journeys. The painting is a Rosetta Stone of sorts, in that it depicts all these various events that happened to the conquistadors in the interim of 200 years.
Thinking both about Las Indias (2006), in which cartography and the plunder of objects by the Spanish are both prominent, and The Wreck of Nuestra Señora de Atocha (2006 – 2021), part of a larger series of underwater paintings that depict sunken objects important to Mexican and Spanish cultures, I wondered about how images of objects find their way into your work. What kind of research, or curatorial decisions, do you go through when selecting objects to depict?
The Wreck of Nuestra Señora de Atocha #2, 2006 - 2021
oil on linen
40 x 48 x 1 1/2 inches
(101.6 x 121.9 x 3.8 cm)
“Nuestra Señora de Atocha” was the name of a Spanish treasure galleon loaded with emeralds, gold, and silver artifacts that sank in a hurricane off the Florida Keys in 1622. The wreck was famously discovered in 1985, filled to the brim with precious treasure. In the painting when the Atocha sinks, something strange happens, what remains standing at the bottom of the ocean is a Pre-Columbian gold figure, on top of which is a gold mask both from the eleventh century Incan Empire. I wanted to say that despite the mayhem, pillage, rape, and death wrought by colonialism on this continent, in the end, Indigenous culture remained standing.
One dilemma for me when creating these artworks is the issue of being Mestizo, i.e., of Spanish and Indigenous descent, which is at times a strange position to be in. This is because, on the one hand, I can't dislike the Spanish and their brutality—after all, I'm half Spanish, but also Indigenous. I usually favor Indigenous culture whenever I can. In most of the work created since the 1990s, the continent is a consequence of a history that I’m always trying to understand. Why? Because understanding the historical context helps me understand who I am.
Along the way, some things that stand out, which I find interesting for whatever reason, and make depictions of these interests. For example, why are some Latin intellectuals exiled? What did a man experience while traveling in the southern part of the United States for eight years in the sixteenth century? What did he see while making his way back to his home territory? It’s like a detective story that I'm trying to understand, unravel, and see. The artistic expression then helps me decipher the story because it is not literal, it’s more of an abstraction, which I try to capture in the paintings. As mentioned previously, what’s interesting about this pursuit for me is that as I go through this evaluation of history, it often helps me find out who I am as a person.
La Leyenda de Los Volcanes (The Legend of the Volcanoes), 1993 - 2018
oil on linen
80 x 108 x 1 1/2 inches
(203.2 x 274.3 x 3.8 cm)
Does this process also inform the making of the paintings in the “FIN” series, like La Leyenda de Los Volcanes (The Legend of the Volcanoes)?
Yes. The “FIN” series was created to illustrate my recognition of the fact that I was not Mexican, but rather an American of Mexican ancestry. It evokes the idea of a Mexico that I thought existed but in fact, no longer did (if it ever did); the myth had shifted and changed during my lifetime.
To address this concept, I selected images from my memory bank, which I felt somehow expressed or captured my sentiment and feelings associated with this change: movies I had seen as a kid, songs my mother sang, or images out of Mexican pop culture, such as the painting The Legend of the Volcanoes, created 1940 by Jesús Helguera, a Mexican folkloric artist who had studied painting in Madrid earlier in his life. The painting is basically illustrating the Romeo and Juliet narrative, originally painted to be used in mass market calendars; before long it was the best-known painting in Mexico after portraits of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Helguera’s painting has a grand cinematic quality and because it’s such a popular image, I decided to use it. I did change the color to monochrome to make it seem like a black and white film.
The “FIN” is taken from Mexican movies I remembered watching as a kid—they always ended with a dramatic “FIN” superimposed over the final shot, along with a statement about the film having been made in Mexico, which advertised the domestic film industry. For my versions, I did quite a bit of research on actual film endings and fonts used, and eventually, after many digital drawings, arrived at the final composition. I should also say here that without the aid of a computer, it’d be difficult to create many of my paintings as the content can be far-reaching and complex. It’s like a storage bank for my mind—I have hundreds, if not thousands, of images stored away.
"The research and making of these works have given me a better understanding of the context I was born into—the cultural, psychological, and historical stuff that helped make me who I am."
But this understanding has also led to the opening of other possibilities. For instance, because of my research, I’ve developed a more conscious awareness that I’m a 40% Native American from Northern Mexico. This is an aspect of my genetic structure I had never examined consciously. All along I had been thinking from the point of view of a Mexican American/Anglo artist; someone from the United States who was educated in an American art school and who sees the world as a North American from Southern California. This new awareness inspires me to think about how I might view reality from the 40% Indigenous within me. To begin doing so, I need to decolonize my own mind.
Raul Guerrero (b. 1945, Brawley, California) will be the subject of a solo exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, in July 2021. Solo exhibitions include Ortuzar Projects, New York (2018); Air de Paris (project space), Romainville, France (2014); Athenaeum Music and Arts Library, San Diego, California (2001, 2007, and 2013); CUE Art Foundation, New York (2010); Long Beach Museum of Art, California (1977); and San Francisco Art Institute, California (1977). His 1989 retrospective exhibition was presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, California. Guerrero has been the recipient of an NEA Photography Fellowship (1979) and the San Diego Art Prize (2006). He lives and works in San Diego, California.
To learn about Raul Guerrero, please view these articles from Frieze, Artforum, Flash Art, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.
Photography by Elon Schoenholz, unless otherwise noted
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