Artist Raul Guerrero stands in his huge new Chula Vista warehouse studio, talking about how growing up in the border region influenced his work.
“Returning to the United States after an evening in Tijuana,” Guerrero says, “there were all these vendors hawking tourist kitsch”—black velvet paintings, sarapes and cheap sculptures. “In essence, those visuals were my first exposure to anything artistic other than doodling on notepads trying to copy Superman comics.”
Today, that same mix of images informs his newest work, “The Desert: A Cultural Primer for Undocumented Workers,” which was recently on display at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. The three-panel mixed-media work—all 27 feet of it—is a striking scene of a desolate expanse of desert, at once serene and unsettling. Lurking among the desert blues and browns is a sprinkling of shadowy rectangles, like headstones evaporating into the sky. Get closer and you notice that they're actually pages from Vanity Fair magazine, their hip models and text faded and all but buried in the heat and sand.
In contrast to the collage of magazine pages in the background, exact copies of three seminal art works stand out in the foreground: Picasso's “Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon,” Marcel Duchamp's “Fountain” and Goya's horrific “Saturn Devouring His Son” all rest in the sand. Almost overlooked are Guerrero's migrants, rendered with sharp brush strokes off in the distance. Here, the random images and cultural icons that Guerrero spied as a youth conspire with more contemporary border imagery.
Guerrero's life narrative is peppered with memories of vivid images and objects—the Hindu deities on the wall of his grandmother's house, or the Polynesian tikis from Southern California surf culture that sent him scurrying to the library, where he discovered African art. And, most tellingly, the quarter-mile-long sheets of paper that protected the San Joaquin Valley grapes Guerrero picked as a teenager in 110-degree heat.
“The endless blank paper excited and confirmed my impulse to draw,” he remembers. “but it also made clear that what awaited me was a life in the fields unless I chose to do something else right away.”
Guerrero enrolled at the Chouinard Art Institute, which he describes as “the most radical art school west of the Mississippi” and which later became the California Institute of the Arts.
Since then, he's produced a large and varied body of work. He began with mixed-media and interactive pieces: bird bone whistles rigged to an air compressor, which, by pressing a foot pedal, conjured sounds from ancient native rituals. His early work also included a film loop showing him dressed as one of his Yaqui or Tarahumara ancestors in a loincloth with flowing hair, starting a fire in the wilderness.
But the need for “more elasticity” moved Guerrero into painting. Travel became the springboard for new themes: Place became his subject, and a sort of surrealism soon emerged. The result of his travels was a series of paintings with evocative titles like “The Life and Times of a Venetian Jewess,” “Aspectos de La Vida Nocturna en Tijuana (Aspects of Tijuana Nightlife),” “Incidents of Travel in the State of Iowa” and, most recently, “Problemas y Secretos Maravillosos do Las Indias” (“The Problems and Marvelous Secrets of the Indies”).
A love of detail, dramatic urgency and magical transformation have prominent places in his work, likely the result of his mother reading to Guerrero and his siblings, everything from Alexander Dumas to Aesop's fables and poetry. In his art, Guerrero strives to create, as he puts it, “rich, visual, poetic images for people to enjoy and dream on.”
If you ask Guerrero about his work, he becomes an eloquent guide into his process and intentions. One part of the “Problems and Marvelous Secrets of the Indies” project, for example, are a dozen drawings of petty criminals from Mexico City.
“After their capture,” he explains, “they'd be featured in the daily newspaper with a mug shot and a caption describing their crime. I found it interesting that these guys all looked indigenous or mestizo, but when you looked at the society pages of the same newspaper, everybody is European-looking—they're all blond and fair. There was a real dichotomy and humorous juxtaposition there.”
He started off drawing the criminals as if they were part of the society pages. Then, later, he drew them on amate—paper hand-made from bark.
“It was a way of uniting these petty criminals with something from their rich indigenous culture,” he says. “I also added another element to the drawings—red handprints, which mirrors a custom of people in pre-Colombian times who were going to be sacrificed. With red paint, they imprinted their hands on walls in order to leave a remembrance to their family and community.”
In other works, Guerrero holds a magnifying glass to contemporary culture, like in his “Fast Food Paintings”—70-by-80 inches each—which feature, in vivid colors, a Mexican combination plate and a hot dog loaded with condiments. In another recent work, the occupants of a gracious Parisian bar, depicted in muted purples, all have boasting timepieces where their heads should be.
Guerrero's latest project—“Problemas y Secretos Maravillosos do Las Indias” —was inspired by time he spent in Custer, S.D., stranded there because of car problems. He considers himself lucky to have the time to experience the power of the place. Right away he saw Custer as a microcosm of early westward expansion and saw the potential for a series of works encompassing the vast American continent—from the Black Hills of the Dakotas to Latin America and their mutual influence on Southern California.
“For the earliest history,' Guerrero says, “I didn't want to focus on the negative things—the colonialism and American imperialism. In the end, I wanted to focus on the poetry that the cross-fertilization of cultures brings to the world. For contemporary settings however, harsh conflicts and political realities clearly resonate.”
It's fitting that this work coincides with Guerrero's move into the cathedral-like dimensions of his new warehouse-studio—it seems the perfect place to nurture material of such epic scope and vision. In September, New York City's CUE Art Foundation will bring Guerrero full circle, with an exhibition of his earliest paintings from his travels to Oaxaca in southern Mexico. On the web: www.raulguerrero.com.