Latino Artists ‘Take Up Space,’ Make Political Critiques at Centro de Artes

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From left: Unfinished by Elizabeth Rodriguez, and Remedies For (Re)Membering: Portraits of My Mother by Sarah Castillo.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

From left: "Unfinished" by Elizabeth Rodriguez, and "Remedies For (Re)Membering: Portraits of My Mother" by Sarah Castillo.

The two exhibitions currently at the Centro de Artes have a lot to say about the diverse Latino experiences of the past and present.

Ángel Rodríguez-Díaz: A Retrospective and A Woman’s Place is… portray diversity in Latino identity and culture, and include political and social commentaries on a range of issues affecting the Latino community.

They’ll be exhibited in their own spaces at the two-story Centro de Artes, the City’s Latino art exhibition and education space in the Zona Cultural, until June 11 and Aug. 20, respectively.

Ángel Rodríguez-Díaz: A Retrospective

Rodríguez-Díaz’s retrospective at the Centro de Artes is the largest and widest-ranging collection of his work. The exhibition features more than 60 pieces the Puerto Rico native created between 1982 and 2014, allowing viewers to see his stylistic progression over his career.

Ángel Rodríguez-Díaz 'A Retrospective' at Centro de Artes.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Ángel Rodríguez-Díaz ‘A Retrospective’ at Centro de Artes.

The first room of the exhibit is more or less in chronological order, showcasing numerous portraits, both of himself and others, for which Rodríguez-Díaz has become so well known. The bold colors and figures in each one draw the viewer in closer, where they can then observe the smaller details in the pieces that contribute to the social and political commentary they’re often making. Rodríguez-Díaz’s portraits of others, Cordova said, often “capture a likeness and a sense of personality and he always wants to have objects that are important to the person.”

A portrait – “Raphael y La Venus Magica” – of San Antonio collector and dentist Raphael Guerra, who along with his wife Sandra lent several of his Rodríguez-Díaz originals to be showcased in the exhibition, shows him holding a tooth in one hand, with a painting of the patron saint of dentists in the background.

Many of his portraits, Cordova said, show influence from a number of global artists, such as English painter Francis Bacon, and Mexican painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. It makes sense because when Rodríguez-Díaz was studying art at Hunter College, after briefly studying at New York University, his teacher, sculptor and artist Robert Morris, said he did not want to see paintings from any of his students.

“[Rodríguez-Díaz’s work] has so many references to other artists. You can see traces of them and that’s because really the masters and the great modern artists were his real teachers rather than the people he studied with because there was incredible hostility to traditional painting and portraiture,” Cordova said. “It was still not really accepted for Latinos to represent themselves.”

One way Rodríguez-Díaz represents the Latino form is with the large triptych of the “goddesses,” featured in the middle of the exhibition. Cordova calls those the “stars of the show.” They show three, nude, heavy-set women of color posing proudly, and two of the portraits were lent to the San Antonio Museum of Art by Chicana author Sandra Cisneros. The museum then lent those to the Centro de Artes for the exhibition.

Ángel Rodríguez-Díaz 'A Retrospective' at Centro de Artes.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Ángel Rodríguez-Díaz ‘A Retrospective’ at Centro de Artes.

His lucha libre self portrait series, located in their own space in the exhibition, show him wearing the Mexican wrestling masks and incorporate the Mexican cultural influences on his work, which came after traveling to the country and were heightened after moving to San Antonio in the 1990s.

Other works point to important periods in his life and his social concerns, such as living as a gay Latino in New York City during the AIDS epidemic. Two pieces in the exhibit were premonitions of getting an HIV-positive diagnosis, Cordova said. Some of his other paintings deal with issues of cultural stereotypes, war, cultural invisibility, and social injustices. “Chupacabra,” a large painting of Rodríguez-Díaz wearing a goat’s skull and crawling out from a fallen tree, references the mythical creature in Latino culture that is said to suck the blood out of goats. In this case, the artist is using it to create a narrative about colonialism and the invisibility and exoticism of Latinos.

The retrospective also features some works that Rodríguez-Díaz and local art historian and curator Ruben C. Cordova rediscovered in his studio in Beacon Hill.

“He didn’t even know he had them. He was kind of shocked,” Cordova said. “It kind of shed light on his evolution, that he’s kind of forgotten about and nobody’s really put together the whole range and scope of this work.”

One of those three works is an image of a dog drinking blood from a street drain, dripping from a dead body hanging overhead. Another piece “Babilonia,” Cordova said, depicts a bar scene inspired by Édouard Manet’s “Le Bar aux Folies-Bergere” from 1882.

Rodríguez-Díaz has been based in San Antonio since 1995, and primarily focuses on public art commissions throughout the city. One of his pieces, “The Beacon,” is a tall, metal statue with cut out designs from top to bottom. It stands proudly in the center of a roundabout in Beacon Hill, at the intersection of Fulton Street and Blanco Road.

His art is part of numerous permanent collections at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.; El Museo del Barrio in New York City; the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago; and El Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His unique style of portraiture, informed by “art of the past,” is “very rare and very powerful,” Cordova said.

“He’s an amazing artist,” he said, “not just for San Antonio, but really for the whole country.”

A Woman’s Place Is

As its name suggests, this exhibition primarily focuses on how the roles of women, particularly Latinas, in society have evolved and expanded over time. The 15 San Antonio-based, Latina artists in the show tell their personal stories relating to the themes of strength, spirituality, family, power, and politics while analyzing the role of women in each theme. The works range from photographs to paintings to videos to installations.

I asked each of [the artists] to carve out physical and mental space for themselves,” said curator Kathy Vargas, a local artist and art teacher at the University of the Incarnate Word. “The whole idea is how women artists take up space in the 21st century.”

The artists featured in the show – Sarah Castillo, Lisette Chavez, Cat Cisneros, Ana Laura De La Garza, Jenelle Esparza, Audrya Flores, Diana Rodriguez Gil, Mari Hernandez, Chloe Rivas, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Elva Salinas, Victoria Suescum, April Flores Taylor, Anita Valencia, and Carla Veliz – span multi generations. Some of the women were active in the feminist art wave that occurred almost 60 years ago, while others are newer to the genre.

From left: Unfinished by Elizabeth Rodriguez, and Remedies For (Re)Membering: Portraits of My Mother by Sarah Castillo.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

From left: “Unfinished” by Elizabeth Rodriguez, and “Remedies For (Re)Membering: Portraits of My Mother” by Sarah Castillo.

Bringing all of the artists together for the exhibit, Vargas said, was a way to have the newer generation of women discover the unique feminist art history and to acknowledge “some of the women artists that have come before us.”

Considering today’s political atmosphere is similar to that during the feminist movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Vargas said that there are numerous political, social, and stylistic parallels between the art of the older and newer generations.

A universal truth among all of the artists, she said, is that “they are not sitting idly by.

“They’re realizing it’s time to get busy, it’s time to claim my rights as a woman, it’s time to be aware of everything going on with immigrants, with refugees, with women, with whoever we have to defend right now.”

Visitors of the exhibit, which is on the Centro de Artes’ second floor, can navigate through it on two different paths. Those who turn to the right at the top of the stairs dive into art pieces relating to worldly matters, namely politics, such as a flag by Esparza called “Continent” that’s made of early quilts that her grandmother had started.

“It has become a flag that tells her family’s stories,” Vargas said, “but it’s also a flag that’s about the lives that immigrants built through the generations. It shows that idea how families survive, how individuals survive in a new place.”

Gíl’s “Buscando Refugio,” a multimedia installation, shows various figures of refugee adults and children. “I consider myself a social political artist, and I react to the current environment and the inhumanity that occurs,” she wrote in an excerpt for the exhibition.

If you take a left at the stairs, more spiritual works await you, like de la Garza’s “40 Days with Jesus.” The installation is made of 80 monotypes that portray the likeness of Jesus Christ, sometimes interacting with others, and various orbs of bright light.

40 Days with Jesus, Suite of 80 by Ana Laura de la Garza.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

“40 Days with Jesus, Suite of 80” by Ana Laura de la Garza.

Taylor’s photographs in that section deal “with spiritual growth and philosophical wonder … based on a discussion my son and I had concerning the clouds and whether or not he could find God past them,” she wrote in an excerpt displayed next to her work.

Both paths eventually lead to the middle, where magical realism is explored.

Vargas encourages everyone, even men, to visit the exhibition and be inspired by the messages being told by local Latinas.

“Women need to be seen and heard right now. We need to get our message out there,” she said. “We need to tell the world now that we’re here and we’re gonna stay and we’re not backing down.

“We’re great artists, thinkers, we’re great politicians, we’re great mothers,” she continued. “Yes, we’re still in traditional roles, but we’re also in … nontraditional roles.”

The Centro de Artes gallery is free and open to the public Tuesday-Sunday from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. More information is available at GetCreativeSanAntonio.com.

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