Monday, October 2, 2017

"Playing With Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California

"You know, there is, Aztlan is a fictitious [mythical] place. But we're saying it exists everywhere. You can just drive to Venice and you'll see murals as much as you'll see on the east side. So, to me, that was a very uncalled-for way of looking at the murals. The review for that show also never once criticized or analyzed the murals. It was mostly the social phenomenon of having eastside kids and eastside young people over in the west side in some restaurant. There happens to be a restaurant in the museum, yes. There's also one at the Museum of Modern Art and one at the Metropolitan."  

Interview with Carlos Almaraz
Conducted by Margarita Nieto
At the Archives of American Art Southern California Research Center in Los Angeles, CA
February 6, 13, & 20 and July 31, 1986; and January 29, 1987

"Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz" features 65 works, including mostly paintings and several drawings from the artist’s studio practice. Almaraz was legendary during his lifetime, initially as a political activist and a cofounder of Los Four—among the first Chicano artist collectives to emerge in Southern California in the 1970s—and ultimately as a visionary studio artist whose compelling images convey a deep psychological impact. Almaraz first became an activist through his work with the United Farm Workers, painting banners for union rallies. Among his most visible works from this period were a number of public murals in East Los Angeles that depicted the Chicano civil rights struggle. By the end of the decade, however, Almaraz felt constrained by his role as a cultural worker within the movement and turned his creative aspirations to asserting a far more personal form of expression. Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz explores this personal and artistic transformation. A highlight of the exhibition is the 24-foot-wide Echo Park Lake nos. 1–4 (1982), a four-paneled painting reminiscent of Claude Monet’s Impressionistic renderings of lily ponds and Parisian parks. This exhibition marks the first time that the four panels have been reunited since 1987. Other highlights include: Almaraz’s studio-based art featuring idyllic scenes of Hawaii (where Almaraz and his family maintained a second home); fiery freeway car crashes richly imbued with saturated colors; self-portraits; contemplative scenes of domestic life; and surreal dreamscapes.

Almaraz began his art career in New York by making minimalist work. His brief sojourn in the New York scene was a failure. Almaraz returned to Los Angeles in the early 1970s and began working in the emerging Chicano movement. He joined the Chicano art collective Los Four. However, the death of his brother and a near-death experience he himself experienced changed his approach to art. Finally, Gilbert “Magu” Lujan, the artist and activist, advised Almaraz to move away from political art and concentrate more on a personal style. Lujan believed that Almaraz would better serve the cause if Almaraz focused on the personal in his painting.

The LACMA survey focuses on Almaraz’ paintings from the last 10 years of his life. Almaraz explores the themes of magic, disasters and traffic collisions, the erotic, all within the backdrop of Los Angeles. Almaraz used the techniques of the Impressionist, along with the contemporaneous colors and composition that would define neo-expressionist tendencies of the late 70s and 80s. This is particularly true of Almaraz’s cityscapes. Each canvas is electric and filled with motion. The city and people move about in almost an immaterial sense of movement and magic. The viewer can see hints and influences from the Futurists and Surrealist. In some works, Almaraz’s paintings of landscapes of Echo Park, and Los Angeles are contradictory; tranquil and tumultuous, peaceful and stressed, sullen and hyper. When one looks at the works and see both the palm trees, skylines, and parks with the dark hues of color mixed with the pastels and brightness, Almaraz brings the city to life in glaring movements and energy.

When it comes to Los Angeles, the city is known for its freeways and automobiles. Almaraz uses the freeways as sites of disaster and calamity. Car crashes along freeways, along with burning houses, inhabit each canvas. The structure of the freeways and landscape frame the disasters while reminding the viewers of the mortal dangers of the car and suburban culture that’s prevalent in Los Angeles. In his car crash paintings, it feels that there is a fatalism that expresses itself in both beauty and disaster. Living in Los Angeles has price. The beauty of life in Los Angeles comes with the risk of death in the form of the car and the freeway. In a way, Almaraz responds and challenges the car culture and the “Finnish Fetish” that was prevalent the 1960’s Pop movement of the 1960s. Almaraz is almost saying that the symbol of movement and progress is also a way of death. The magic of the afterlife is contained in the cars that collide and blow up.

In his other works, clowns, demons, and magicians populate the canvases performing and making mischief. Almaraz creates a world that is both electrical and mystical. There are tensions throughout each canvas that make it seem like each scene will burst out onto the viewer. Animals such as Jaguars and Rabbits, along with Clowns populate the canvases by doing an array of activities. The rabbit and the jaguar play a significant role in the Aztec cosmos of gods. The jaguar was the symbol for the god of war, while the rabbit was the party animal in a literal sense that would get drunk at celebrations with the other Aztec gods.  If one examines the iconography of his paintings, Almaraz is portraying places of legend and myth by combining both the iconography of Western culture, and Aztec mythology. In Almaraz’ vision, Los Angeles is Aztlan and Aztlan is everywhere.

When looking at the works of Carlos Almaraz during the last decade of his life, and then looking at his earlier work as an activist in the Chicano movement, one can wonder how this either continues the Chicano movement, or does this work turn away from that earlier activism. It can be argued that in some ways, Almaraz did both. The obvious and literal approach to the Chicano movement was left behind after life changing events in the late 70s. Aztlan is both a mythical and a real place. Almaraz was depicting the Aztlan that is both part of Los Angeles as a magical world where place where myths and dreams are created, and the fatalistic reality are both in play. 

Tragically, Almaraz' life was cut short in 1989 when he died of AIDS related complications. The LACMA show firmly establishes the influence and legacy of Almaraz as a painter of Los Angeles. To Almaraz, Los Angeles was and continues to be a magical place that embodies Aztlan. LACMA's survey of Almaraz' paintings is a worthy addition to the current incarnation of Pacific Standard Time: Latin America/Los Angeles.

On view through December 3, 2017

Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90036
Phone: 323 857-6010 | (TTY: 323 857-0098)

#lacma #carlosalmaraz #chicanoart  #aztlan #painting #losangeles @pstla #pstlala 


1 comment:

Unknown said...

"Playing With Fire" is a long overdue survey of Carlos Almaraz's paintings. He is an iconic Los Angeles artist, and I hope the public takes the opportunity to see this show before it closes on December 3rd. It has some of the most magical and beautiful paintings ever painted in or of Los Angeles.

It is a long overdue examination of the major works of an under known major American artist.

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