In the San Antonio art scene, the term “Second Saturday” refers to monthly art openings at the conclave of galleries and studios located in the neighborhood that was recently named “Southtown The Arts District.” For several years, these second-Saturday-of-the-month gatherings have been a goldmine for discovering new talent, and at the moment, the scene is exploding with youthful vitality.
For those who missed the openings earlier this month, Studio Fantomas is holding a closing reception on Friday, May 6 from 6-9 pm for an exhibition by Westside native Jose Fidel Sotelo, one of the noteworthy young artists to emerge from this scene over the past few years. Although trained in graphic design, having taken courses at San Antonio College and Austin Community College, Sotelo has developed a considerable body of paintings and drawings that employ symbolic patterns and pictographic emblems, formats often used by street and tattoo artists, to explore issues of identity, survival, mortality, and equality.
Sotelo first took up painting in 2009, while he was a student in Austin. When he realized that canvas was too expensive for his budget, he decided to paint on a material that he already had at hand, unused frames he had purchased while taking a photography class. His painting process, then, is to apply glass paint (coincidentally the same medium used by Alyssa Danna to create sculpture) to the underside of the Plexiglas or glass sheets, and exhibit the finished paintings in the existing frames.
From the very beginning, Sotelo has found his studio practice to be a meditative process that frees him from daily pressures so he can pursue philosophical questions, often using a dualistic mode of inquiry. In early works such as Sin Miedo de Vivir, Sin Miedo de Morir (Without Fear of Living, Without Fear of Dying, 2009) Sotelo presents mirror images of a male figure, posed with arms outstretched triumphantly and accompanied by text presented in a poster style that reflects the artist’s background in graphic design as well as the print tradition of the Mexican Taller de Grafica Popular. The message, which is inscribed above and below the figures in Spanish, is about accepting death as we accept life.
Although the figures are symmetrical, the text box about life is larger and weightier than the one devoted to death. Recalling Hercules or Atlas carrying heavy objects, the upper image suggests that we may find more obstacles and greater challenges in life than we might in death. In a related untitled painting of two doves with human hands for wings, Sotelo presents a yin-yang-style visual paradox regarding heaven and hell.
The hands of the blue dove face inward, so if they were to meet in a gesture of prayer, the dove would be incapable of flying and thus could not soar up to heaven. Inversely, the hands of the red dove are positioned outwards, so flapping them would cause the bird to fly upward and away from hell.
As Sotelo continued working with bird imagery, he moved from positioning the birds in opposition to merging them in the form of an abstract emblem representing love achieved through unity. In his Amorave series, the emblem is centrally situated over patterned backgrounds that reflect the artist’s fondness for the design elements of Mesoamerican architecture, murals, and textiles of Mexico City and Teotihuacan, cities he visits annually for several weeks at a time. In one example, Sotelo pays homage to his Mexican heritage by superimposing his symbol for unity over a sarape pattern rendered in warm, luminous earth tones. In another, the symbol is backed by a background of rose patterns that convey a more universal sentiment. Sarape patterns are also prominently featured in Sotelo’s abstract landscapes, such as Sarape Spearo (2011), where the sarape stripes are textured to resemble rows of soil in open fields, seen from an aerial perspective.
By the end of 2011, Sotelo’s emblems were looking more and more like mandalas, circular abstractions that the psychologist Carl Jung defined as psychological expressions of the totality of the self. Sotelo acknowledges that working in the studio is a means towards achieving feelings of balance and harmony, and thus he has strong leanings towards forms that are symmetrical. In one of his most spatially complex landscape paintings, the mandala takes the form of a lotus flower and is repeated evenly throughout the composition. Structured in layers, the painting explores the artist’s relationship to the universe, with the frontmost layer housing a single, centrally placed emblem. The only completed mandala, it symbolizes the artist’s interior world and personal state of well being.
Inspired by the grid patterns of Mesoamerican textiles and his personal collection of Mexican masks, Sotelo next turned to a format of allover patterning, with mandalas replaced by masklike animal heads. Unlike the artists of the Pattern Painting movement of the 1970s, who championed decoration primarily for its formal possibilities and cultural significance as a feminine aesthetic sensibility, Sotelo infuses his patterns with symbolic content. During his travels to Mexico, he became interested in the patterned yarn painting and beadwork of the Huichol people, which contain images of deer who, according to Huichol mythology, have magical powers to protect crops such as the peyote cactus, and to provide spiritual and artistic guidance. Sotelo’s Blue Venado (Blue Deer, 2013) puts a contemporary spin on this tradition, with shimmering blue deer heads crowned with all-seeing third eyes superimposed over framed symbols for peyote. In a related untitled work, painted in tribute to dog who had just died, Sotelo merges a pattern of dog heads and teardrops with a pattern of roses.
In 2014, Sotelo was feeling that the amount of time required to make a painting was holding back his creative thinking, in that he was constantly coming up with new ideas and wished that he could execute them more quickly. Encouraged by San Antonio artist Albert Alvarez, who is constantly drawing and carries a sketchbook wherever he goes, Sotelo started bringing sketchbooks with him on his frequent trips to Mexico. Over the past two years, in fact, he has made hundreds of quick sketches, some inspired by things observed and others completely from his imagination. Those that interest him back in the studio are turned into meticulous drawings that, while created in a state of meditative calm, can end up being energetic and dynamic. Sotelo’s Mexican Mandalas (2014-15), for example, are mesmerizing kaleidoscopic images, developed by drawing a single pattern four times, rotating it from quadrant to quadrant.
In other recent examples, Sotelo uses drawing as a means for self-reflection and personal growth. To heal himself cathartically following a failed relationship, he drew Plumas y Navajas (2015), in which an anatomical heart is encircled by a ring of feathers and knives that represent the pleasures and wounds of a love affair. Protectress (2016), on the other hand, uses symbolic patterning to examine the connections between a mother and child, an issue that has been on Sotelo’s mind since he recently entered his thirties. Repeated ten times in the composition, symbols that include a doe and her fawn, an animal trap, deer food, water droplets, and death skulls, are plotted out diagrammatically, like a roadmap about surviving the obstacles towards reaching adulthood, and a mother’s protective role in this.
A number of Sotelo’s latest works reveal a new direction for the artist that is rich with possibilities. In his quiet and understated manner, Sotelo has entered into the dialogues about classism and racism that are dominating our current presidential campaign. In You and Me (2016), the privileged 1% are represented by a sun-drenched unicorn, while the 99% are symbolized by a moon-lit donkey. Yet, as if to say that we all die in the end, Sotelo plants their feet in the same landscape populated with symbols about living (spouting plants and water droplets that feed them) and dying (a pile of skulls).
Another new drawing, Appropriation (2016), was inspired by a panel on diversity at the San Pedro Playhouse that focused on the controversies surrounding the cancelling of the Contemporary Art Month showcase exhibition due to the omission of Latina artists. For Sotelo, the discussion got him thinking about how indigenous cultures are viewed from the outside, and how cultural meanings can become appropriated and altered over time. In his drawing, symbols for Mexican-American culture, arranged in the center like a rock pile or refuse awaiting a bonfire, include a bag of tacos, a raspa, sweetbreads, a bottle of tequila, a skull, a votive candle, a corncob, and a print by local artist Cruz Ortiz. Within the context of today’s political climate, the cornstalks and snakes that surround the pile on one side refer to Mexico, while the animal traps in the foreground bring to mind Donald Trump’s proposed wall. Continuing a tradition that was launched by street artists, Sotelo’s drawings function, in a more intimate and delicate manner, as lexicons for understanding the complexities of our troubled times.
Top image: Jose Fidel Sotelo in his studio. Photo by David S. Rubin.