A Multifaceted Career: Raul Guerrero talks with Mary Jones
Raul Guerrero at Ortuzar Projects
June 21 to July 27, 2018
9 White Street, between Sixth Avenue and West Broadway
New York City, ortuzarprojects.com
Since “Pacific Standard Time,” the comprehensive survey of art in Southern California from 1945 to 1980, organized in 2011 at multiple venues, documentation of artists from that innovative and experimental period has been on reset. The early 1970s, in particular, were a watershed, as young artists emerging in the wake of the game-changing 1963 Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum, turned to conceptual and performative practices the boundaries between them blurred. Some, like Ed Ruscha, extended the notion of object making into specific sites of investigation, the surreal nature of Southern California itself chief among them.
Raul Guerrero was born in 1945 in Brawley, California, and is currently living and working in San Diego. He was an active part of the groundbreaking scene of the early 1970s, and has continued in the decades since to contextualize the hybrid culture of Southern California.
In his second solo show in New York City, and his first at Ortuzar Projects, we’re introduced to over 20 years of Guerrero’s ongoing trajectory, from 1971 through 1993. That he began his career at a unique moment in Southern California isn’t lost on Guerrero—this is the time of Chris Burden’s most notorious performances, the 1972 Womanhouse of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, and the work of David Hammons, Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari (his first teacher) and Doug Wheeler. Al Ruppersberg, Jack Goldstein, Vija Celmins, William Leavitt, and James Welling were all Guerrero’s peers.
In conversation, Guerrero often uses the phrase, “by coincidence,” usually in appreciation of the fortuitous events that marked his journey and aesthetic.
“Since I was a child, every summer my family and I would travel north and work as migrant workers,” he says. “All the accoutrements we’d need for the summer, the pots and pans, everything, were loaded into the back of my father’s flatbed truck. As we’d go over the 101 Freeway, from the back of the truck I’d gaze out at the Capitol Building, and think, ‘Wow, this is Hollywood.’ We’d stop and cook our meals right by the side of the road, and join the encampments by the Merced River, and suddenly there’d be so many other people, Anglos, Oakies, African Americans, gypsies, Mexicans, and Mexicans from Texas. My aspiring family eventually became middle class, and at 16, I’m lying under a vineyard, wondering, what I’m going to do with my life? I hitchhike down to Mexico City and 4 years later I’m in Chouinard Art Institute. On the first day of class, I found myself sitting next to Jack Goldstein. Can you imagine? He looked just like Paul McCartney, and we became close friends.”
At the Chouinard, which later became part of CalArts, Guerrero understood Duchamp’s work instantly and found it liberating, the essential foundation of his aesthetic philosophy. Not only was he drawn to the concept of the assisted readymade, but also to the subliminal power of a single, iconic object or image. This, for Guerrero, resonated with another influence—Carl Jung’s theories of archetype and the collective unconscious.
Among the 46 pieces in the exhibition, the earliest are Guerrero’s Moroccan watercolors from 1971, shown here for the first time. These come with the intriguing backstory that sparked their creation. At the suggestion of his friend and mentor Ed Kienholz, Guerrero sold all his belongings and headed to Europe. “By coincidence” (again) he managed to meet everyone right away: sitting next to Francis Bacon at dinner in London, he meets Lee Miller, (Man Ray’s model and muse), and meets his idol, Richard Hamilton, and this is just the first week. He ventures down to Morocco, and soon was living on a few dollars a day in El Ksar Seghir, a small village outside of Tangier. The series of watercolors are intimately sized, as they were created to be postcards for his girlfriend. He shares the dazzling ambiance in beautifully patterned, detailed, and hallucinogenic pieces in which teapots, tiles and other domestic objects with their exotic symbols and arabesques vibrate in talismanic bands of energy—reverberations from the local hashish.
After that summer, Guerrero returned to LA blazing. In just a few years he made significant bodies of work in photography, sculpture, performance, installation, and video. Each of these directions could have fuelled a lifetime of work. Guerrero is a gifted and emotional photographer, as evidenced by his California Sur Photographs from 1972. (He cites the Mexican movies of Luis Bunuel as a childhood passion.) These photos were his personal documentation of a two week road trip through Baja with artist friends. The compositions are effortless. Throughout his photographs, Guerrero’s utilization of light is mysterious, otherworldly, and exquisitely tender, as in the ethereal portrait, for example, of his elderly grandmother, who seems to hover between the tangible and spiritual realms.
Another standout in his multifaceted career is the assisted readymade: Rotating Yaqui Mask(1974) is a seminal, declarative work. Guerrero describes this piece as a formal exploration of, and direct response to, Duchamp’s “Rotating Glass Disc,” but the personal choice of the Yaqui mask can be unsettling. For me, the psychic energy released from the mechanized spinning of this ritual object multiplies seismically in a fearsome way, the context feeling both taboo and dangerously displaced. Similarly, in his movie “Primitive Act” of 1974, Guerrero is squatting and naked among rocks and shrubs, reenacting the primitive discovery of fire.
Seeking a more subjective, and pliable medium, since the 1980s Guerrero has focused on oil painting. Among those on view are four selections from his Oaxaca series from 1984 plus La Mujer of the Puerto from 1993. The Oaxaca series was done on location and, like the Moroccan watercolors, he entrenches himself in the history and culture of this particular place. Guerrero treats stylistic representation like a local language and adapts a flat colonialist style relevant to his theme. Like many of the painters he admires —Walter Robinson, Neil Jenney, Lisa Yuskavage and Alida Cervantes — Guerrero opens the door to Kitsch and pulp desire. As if he is writing a detective novel, heembeds layers and clues in his post-conceptual approach.
Much of Guerrero’s process involves honing his attention and allowing his emotional responses to connect him not only to his own history but to that of the culture at large.He interprets his painting Vista de Bonampak (1984) for me: “I want to capture not only what represents the place for me, but also a critique of the culture, so after visiting the archeological ruins of Bonampak, once a Mayan city near Chiapas, Mexico, I imagined a jaguar, coveted within Mayan culture for ferocity and strength, stumbling on the scene of the murals, depicting men dressed as jaguar knights, in jaguar skins, capturing enemies for sacrificial purposes who are also dressed in jaguar skins. Although I might question who is the most vicious creature in the jungle, I also want to make paintings that are interesting and beautiful.
“There’s a lot that can be said about the brutality of the system, especially with our current president, but I prefer images that don’t delve into it overtly.”
After 40 years of structured study of North America, Guerrero has a new theory: “Because we’re living on a continent that was occupied by indigenous people through millennia, and their voice has been suppressed, their culture, especially in the artworld, is changing things subliminally by gaining a voice though artists, one way or another. It’s a philosophical and cultural virus that’s spreading. For example, John Baldessari grew up in National City, like I did, ten miles from the border. Now, here’s a major artist, he goes to Mexico and is exposed to all this stuff that you see coming out of Mexico that’s really interesting, but in fact it’s all indigenous culture.
“If you dig tacos, you’re being affected by an indigenous culture. You’re consuming part of that philosophical virus. It’s full of indigenous material: tortilla, beans, corn, the way it’s prepared—it changes the way you see your reality. What that reality is I’m not sure, but somehow that essence, that philosophy, is expressing itself nonetheless into the culture unbeknownst to us.
“In this encounter between culture and things,” he says, “your sense of reality is shifted. Artists like Baldessari, who’s making art about culture on a large scale, has had his view shifted, and then he turned all these other guys on at CalArts. Bizarre, right?”
Guerrera is planning a trip to the Amazon sometime later this year.