25 March 2012

Roots of the Roving Plant: Raul Guerrero

Tea Kettle (watercolor, 1971)
   Today, we have the pleasure to focus on one of the most eclectic and thought-provoking artists we've come across. Working since the early 70s, Raul Guerrero has gone through several different approaches for his expressions, each one resulting in some pretty astounding fruit, rich in visual delight as well as razor-sharp social and spiritual commentary.

   Growing up in National City, Guerrero absorbed what he calls the "collision of cultures" from the area. He graduated from Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, which he describes as "not only a place where the instructors were uniquely interesting and exemplary, but where the student body was also. For me it was the experience of finding my misfit tribe." Soon afterwards, Guerrero sold all his possessions and used the money to travel initially to Europe, eventually ending up in Morocco in 1971.
   "Tangiers was very inexpensive, so I decided to stay for awhile," says Guerrero. "You could easily live on two dollars per day, one for a harbor-view room in the Kasbah and the other for sustenance and incidentals: buttered bread, honey and coffee in the morning, dried fruit and mint tea in the afternoon, couscous and mint tea for dinner."
   Tea Kettle and Kif Pipe are watercolor paintings created in this setting. Radiating color and joy, the pieces seek to capture the essence of Guerrero's overseas experiences. Tea is the ubiquitous beverage in Morocco, while kif is the ubiquitous cannabis-derived drug.

Kif Pip (watercolor, 1971)

   "In Morocco, kif is stuffed into the ceramic bowl of a long-stemmed pipe and smoked in one inhalation then shot out of the bowl by blowing air into the pipe and done in a quick two step process. This drawing represents the smoking ritual in a graphic style that represents the visuals induced by the kif. This drawing style then became the prototype for the other images in the series. The star is the icon found on the Moroccan flag. The Arabic text spells out Morocco in Moroccan Arabic."
   "Because they were created as postcards for my girlfriend in LA, I painted them small, but for one reason or another they were never mailed," Guerrero says.

Accidente-Monte Alban (silkscreen on arches paper, 1980)

Winchell's Donuts- Inglewood
(silkscreen on arches paper, 1980)
   After returning to the States, Guerrero created several installation/mixed media pieces, and then in 1980, he turned to drawing as he focused on how memory uniquely edits and summarizes events. The five prints in the Five Cities series were first drawn onto scratchboard, a cardboard covered with white clay and an even layer of black ink, which when scratched with a stylus reveals the white of the clay. The drawings were then photographed with an industrial camera from which acetate positives and photo emulsion stencils were made, and eventually published in an edition of 50 impressions per drawing.
   "I envisioned the images for this project to be highly graphic, stark and with the least amount of personal expression as I could make them," says Guerrero. "They were to be images that registered quickly in the mind, so scratchboard made the most sense as a medium. Once I began work on the series, I re-discovered the sensuality of drawing and how enjoyable it was to create in this fashion."

(oil on canvas, 1985)
   After the Five Cities series, Guerrero examined narrative issues through sculpture, and then turned to painting with oils because of the wider range of possibility inherent in the medium.
   "Painting is a plastic medium that offers an incredible range of possibilities for expression, color, texture, contrast, brush-marks, etc," Guerrero explains. "The only problem with this medium for me was that I had never painted before. Art school did not count, as there you were basically left to your own devices and were not taught formal painting or the type of realism I needed to present my images. So in 1984, I put enough money together to buy myself 6 months in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I began the process of teaching myself to paint. The first paintings I produced in this new medium were the Oaxaca Series."
   Desire speaks against the germ of the idea that European or Hellenic beauty is supreme. Though the indigenous Mexican woman may not be as tall or gleaming as the classical statue, she is alive, whole, and radiating warmth. A spirit of rebellious victory shines through the scene of ruination, as it also highlights Guerrero's move away from sculpture to the warmer, more malleable art of painting.

Pool of Palenque
(oil on canvas, 1985)
     Pool of Palenque depicts a place of rejuvenation, serenity, and wisdom. As for its background, Guerrero admits that it was inspired in part by Garcia Marquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

   "I had visited Palenque many years before and found it to be both beautiful, magical and very sensual. Somewhere along my stay in Oaxaca, I found a photo of the Pool at Palenque by Flor Garduno, which inspired me to compose the painting, along with the magical realism of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. The mask is 12th century Mayan."

The Toilette (oil on linen, 1988)
   The Venice paintings from 1987 continue Guerrero's exploration of place, and come across as a delightful blend of Titian-like composition with Matisse-like lines and color.
   Guerrero says: "In some respects, I was thinking of the surreality of the place. I used what is commonly known as Paris-style of painting, Matisse, Raoul Dufy etc., basically line and color. At this time, I switched over to linen because it was the most classical support used by artists. As I was discovering more about painting, I realizes that stretched linen has a firmness that is great for painting on and is more resilient to time than cotton duck."

Borracho en el ancla (oil on linen, 1989)

   Borracho en el Ancla, from Guerrero's Tijuana series, really gets the mood across, through its perspective and its colors. As Guerrero says, "It pretty much says it all regarding the despair found in the red light district of Tijuana. The Tijuana series began on or around Xmas of 1988 and was completed the first part of 1990. I would go the district just about every weekend to take notes and make sketches. This area is not easy to photograph because there is so much going on that no one wants to be discovered. So the best way to capture the place is by drawing it. After the weekly sojourn, I would come back to my studio and make a more accurate drawing from the sketches and from memory. The palette was fauvist, the freedom of color expression developed in Paris by Matisse and other contemporary artists. I thought it was the best way to go as the bars have these weird interior lighting schemes that are very subdued. Oliver Stone bought this painting out of my first gallery show of this series. As for the image poking out of the drunk man's pocket, that is a one dollar bill."

Leyenda de los Volcanes (oil on linen, 1993)

   Leyenda de los Volcanes, based on Jesus Helguera's illustration of the famous Aztec legend, is very iconic, epic and beautiful, while the super-imposed print complicates it in intriguing ways. Translated as "The End-This is a Mexican movie", the print could be seen as trivializing a noble story which has been passed down through oral and written traditions for hundreds if not thousands of years. Thinking of the legend as just another movie is a depressing thought, but another possible reading is that the painting elevates the movie medium by suggesting a project that deserves to be made.

México- Hernán Cortés, 1519 – 1525 (oil on linen, 1995)

   Continuing with this practice of writing over classic paintings, Guerrero turned this time to Velazquez' Rokeby Venus. His historical intention comes across clearly in feeling in the series, but here are his words to compliment and clarify: "My thought was that it would be an interesting image to present a work representative of the 17th century decline of the Spanish Empire juxtaposed with an image representative of the beginning of the empire. The painting depicts the events of 1520 when Spanish troops led by Fernando Cortez entered Tenochitlan (Mexico City), and when with indigenous allies they overthrew the Aztec ruler Moctezuma. Though the gold and treasures acquired during the conquest enriched Spain to the level of making it the dominant monarchy in Europe for the next 200 years, it was those same riches that eventually led to Spain's downfall after a series of wars erupted over trade routes and power. The signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1630 between the French and Spanish, when Louis the 14th married the daughter of the Spanish Monarch, was the beginning of the decline of the Spanish Empire. And that event was witnessed by Diego Velazquez, painter of the Rokeby Venus."

The Whaling Bar (soft pastel, casein on archival paper, 2003)

   The painting above transforms the Whaling Bar at La Valencia Hotel into a tavern out of time, a place for intellectual and spiritual contemplation, but still warm and nurturing, like an alternate Palenque.
   "I don't consider myself an alcoholic," Guerrero says. "But I do enjoy martinis and vino. And I know exactly what Luis Bunuel means when he talks about communicating with the muses when he was in that state of mind. There is a certain transcendence. I reached the conclusion that there might be something to the idea of artist bars and their effect on creativity. So I began the series of paintings on artist bars. This project was intended to examine artist bars in California ( a component of the Problemas series) but has evolved to consider bars around the world. I now have quite a nice collection of paintings representing bars. The modus operandi is basically similar to that taken in Tijuana, hang out, have a few drinks, make some drawings and sketches, then retire to studio to capture the image."

Chorizo Combo Portrait
(digital photograph, 2004)
Tostada Portrait
(digital photograph, 2004)

   In 2004, Guerrero had another visual communication breakthrough, this time at La Posta on Washington and 3rd.
   "When playing with my food, I made a face with a chili jalapeño and hot carrots, and all of a sudden, I had the epiphany: the food is the key."
   The series is an intriguing variation on the "You are what you eat" saying, exploring Southern California diet while valiantly retaining its humorous streak.

   When asked how San Diego could be more receptive to great art-making, Guerrero says: "That is a very complex topic and a question that requires pages of discussion. I will say this: San Diego has spawned many great artists, a proportionality greater number per capita than other cities. San Diego is situated in a great place on the continent, adjacent to Mexico and Latin America and the Pacific Rim, but lacks that critical mass, at the moment, to make it a truly viable art center. Unless a city has a critical mass of activity that supports the vision of these creative types, it's often the case that they leave. LA and New York have that critical mass of universities, art schools, film, television and music industries, all supporting one another and growing collectively through time. New ideas are inspired in those environments, and more importantly there is an audience willing to examine and support them."

   Guerrero currently teaches art part-time at UCSD, about which he says: "When I teach it's almost like taking a vacation in that it gives me a break to see studio work from a distance. I also feel I fortunate to work with young art students as they always are coming up with interesting thoughts and expressions."

   Regarding his future projects, Guerrero says "After the various projects I've completed, for the first time in many years, if ever, I'm allowing intuition a larger role in my creative process."
   We are intrigued to see the results, even if they represent a departure. After all, this whole oeuvre has been a series of rewarding departures, and we've only glimpsed a fraction of the work he's made. We thank you for the journeys you've shared thus far, Raul. And we're looking forward to the next chapter!

[A retrospective show, entitled Large Paintings of Wicked Adults, featuring several of Raul Guerrero's nudes will open on April 20th. See the Events Page for more details. For more information on Raul Guerrero, feel free to visit his website at RaulGuerrero.com.]

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