This past week I had the opportunity to talk with Luis Becerra about his current exhibit at Trópico de Nopal, Remembering Conscience. The show, curated by Domingo Rodriguez, is a unique and gripping collection of iron and steel masks that evoke historical and political themes. I highly recommend it. It runs through May 10th 2010. For more information on gallery hours, please visit http://www.tropicodenopal.com/. This coming Thursday, April 22, at 7PM, Trópico will also host Conversation with the Artist, where Mr. Becerra will answer questions and speak about his work as a political artist. Gallery address: 1665 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90026. 213-481-8112.
Although Luis is a well-celebrated, Los Angeles-based artist who has been doing his painting, murals, and sculptures for decades, I have to confess I knew close to zilch about him prior to Thursday. My visit with Luis this week was so rich and inspiring that I don’t even know where to begin. There isn’t enough time or space in this Bloga to capture everything I want to convey, so here are some snapshots of how Luis Becerra entered my psyche and heart via his current exhibit and the interview he granted me.
Morning Rush Hour:
It’s a gloomy Thursday morning. I’m stuck in snail-paced traffic on my way to work. It’s tax day. I hate tax day. My car is making a strange rattling noise that I’m sure I can’t afford. I turn up the radio to drown out the clatter. Arizona’s latest anti-immigrant legislation is on the news. The state has just passed a measure requiring police to investigate the immigration status of anyone suspected of being undocumented. Neo-Nazis are on their way to Los Angeles. Crazy Tea Party people are marching in West Los Angeles, carrying posters that equate Obama with Hitler. I want to shut it all off. It’s too much sometimes--the shit our government spews, the wars we’re still in, the xeno and homophobic pendejadas. I’m pissed. I honk for no apparent reason. I merge aggressively. The words “slavery” and “alienation” come to mind and I think of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, the indentured salesman who woke up one day to find himself transformed into a roach. I feel Gregor so deeply today I want to scream. But how do roaches scream?
Noon: Aspiring to Be a Butterfly:
I have one hour to scurry from job one in Koreatown to job two in Highland Park. But there’s a buzz in my head and a tug in my creative soul. I want to check out Luis Becerra’s latest exhibit at Trópico de Nopal, Remembering Conscience. I'm hungering for art and rumor has it Luis can breathe life into bent and burnt iron. This I must see. Technically, there’s no time to visit the gallery. I feel like an oppressed roach as I zigzag towards work. Then I remember a postcard a good friend sent me years ago. It was a picture of a huge cucaracha with killer antennas. Superimposed on the image, my friend scribbled the words, I aspire to be a butterfly. Yes! It's the kind of message I need today. Thank you for reminding me. Always, one must aspire to be a butterfly. I detour and flutter towards Trópico in Echo Park.
Trópico de Nopal:
This is where Luis Becerra and I first meet. Not in person, but in spirit, in art. His numerous masks are made of scrap iron, steel, and savaged things such as door knobs, bicycle chains, meat grinders. I’m completely intrigued by his use of materials and the political nature of his work. I forget all about the tick tock of the clock, traffic jams, job one, and job two.
Who has time to think about all of that when Sitting Bull is staring straight into my eyes through time and space. I feel his razor-sharp rage, his rusted-colored sorrow, his unshakeable strength and dignity. To top it off, he’s totally green, as in made from recycled parts.
Further down there’s a migrant worker hanging on the wall. His face is trapped behind a metal hoe. It evokes sadness and anger in me. I think of my father who first came to this country as a bracero. I think Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, United Farm Workers. I think Arizona immigrant haters really sucks. I imagine metal hoes raining down like lightning bolts from the sky in protest of anti-immigrant legislation and that makes me feel a little better.
At Trail of Tears my heart swells y se me enchina el cuero. My angst from earlier in the day is being shifted and lifted with the bends and twists of Luis’ iron art. Nails become hair, become rain, become tears on the wall and then on my face. It feels good to be reminded that my heart is not made of steel or iron. That despite all the de-sensitizing we undergo on a daily basis, history and art still move me. How could I not be moved? Not even the chains on the mouth of this sculpture can silence its scream.
At Manzanar, I travel to the 1940’s. World War II and Japanese Internment are powerfully captured in a face that looks like a crescent moon. I see barb wire caging people in. I see dust rising in clouds. I see a resilient spirit ascending like the moon.
I’ve only been at the gallery for about half an hour, but already I feel humanized. I hear Picasso’s word in head, Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. I would use harsher words, but yeah, that's how I feel. Art is medicine. No longer a roach, I enthusiastically start yapping away with Trópico gallery owners Reyes Rodriguez and Marialice Jacob. Can they give me Luis’ number? What are their thoughts on the show?
“I think Luis is important because he’s someone who has been around in our community for a long time creating political work,” says Reyes. “His work is very timely and innovative. He’s extremely resourceful, recycling things we would normally throw away and creating art with it. What draws me more and more into his work, though, is his message and his in depth understanding of world history from a Chicano perspective.”
Marialice adds, “For us it’s important that his sensibility is global. I’m always looking for things that will help explain a little more about history during time periods when I wasn’t here. Luis’ art gives me this sense. He transports. For example, his pieces 1915, The Holocaust, Manzanar. I get another sense than I would from merely reading about these historical time periods or events. It’s amazing that he’s able to pair feelings with the material he uses. Each piece evokes strong emotions. The work is very masculine, but its message is quite powerful.”
The Universe Works in Mysterious Ways
By the time I leave the gallery and arrive in Highland Park I’m so late for work that my boss sends me a text that basically says, “Oh hells no! You’re so late, don’t even bother coming in today.” Ouch! I feel bad for a minute, especially since I need the money, but I have art pumping in my veins and Luis Becerra on my mind. Not making money today isn’t going to bring me down. I dial the number Reyes scribbled onto a postcard for me. Ring! Ring! Luis answers.
Luis and I Must Have Know Each Other in Another Life
It’s surreal. Less than an hour after leaving Trópico, I’m kicking it with Luis Becerra at his house, drinking a beer, petting his dogs. We’re talking about all kinds of things—education, poetry, the 1940’s, public transportation, how Los Angeles got sold out to the car companies. He’s super down-to-earth and I feel like I’ve known him for years. Later we end up in Olvera Street, visiting one of his murals. We eat taquitos con guacamole and split a hot churro. We talk about nursing homes, fathers, and the journey of forgiveness. I’m so comfortable I drink the guacamole juice from my cardboard plate as if it were soup. Luis laughs approvingly, encouraging all acts of freedom. When I tell him I suck at drawing and that I lack confident lines, he shakes his head in protest. “It doesn’t matter if the line is confident or not. Draw. You’re not drawing for anyone but yourself. If people don’t like it, fuck them.” Suddenly I want to draw. I love Luis Becerra.
Oh Yes, There Was an Interview with Mr. Becerra and Here it is:
Why were iron and steel your chosen materials for your exhibit Remembering Conscience?
“I chose iron because I think it’s a material that can symbolically represents how this country was invaded. When colonizers first came to these lands they wanted to forge reality and mold it into what they wanted it to be. Today we are still being forged. For example, the way the status quo wants to control the masses.”
I appreciate how your work crosses borders in terms of time and nationalities. Can you say something about this?
“A lot of Chicano artists sometimes focus exclusively on their own culture, but it’s not just about the Mexican or Latino community. It’s about the human race. When you talk about political issues, it has to be international. Whatever affects Afghanistan and Iraq affects us here. And if you’re a political artist you have to talk about what’s happening globally.”
Your sculptures in Remembering Conscience are all portraits. They are made of very hard material and yet they are very intimate. Why did you choose to create a series of faces versus entire bodies, for example?
“They’re faces of you and me and everyone else. I chose faces because I like faces and also because I literally want the art to be in people’s faces. I believe that you have to confront your audience with the issues. You have to make them feel it. I paint and sculpt because I have something to say and I want to bring certain things to the public’s attention. If it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. We’re not going to see the important issues on TV. We don’t see children shot to death. We don’t see the horrors of war. Yet it’s happening. So art is a means to put those things into the public view in a powerful way. You can’t talk in a whisper because people aren’t going to listen to you.”
What about the use of color in your iron pieces? How did you create that and why?
“Part of it is natural rust, but I also play with materials to create layers. When you look at someone who has lived and struggled there are always layers in the face, in the skin. In order to capture and feel that person or that experience, you have to capture those layers. When I paint I layer a lot because for me it represents people's lives. If you don’t have layers, you don’t have a history.”
Where and how did you get your materials for your current show?
“Whatever I saw laying in the trash can, in the street, at school, at the beach, or at the swamp meet I picked up. I’m always picking up materials because I know that eventually I’ll do something with it. The other thing is that metal is expensive. The cost of it adds up quickly, so I look for discarded pieces that I can use to save money and also to recycle.”
How far back can you trace your love of art?
“As a child in grammar school, I always wanted to draw. I used to get into trouble in class for drawing all the time. I think it began there, but I didn’t get more serious about art until after high school. I always say the art chose me; I didn’t choose it.”
Where do you create your art?
"I work in my backyard. My studio is basically my garage. It was really packed before. I’ve cleared it up a bit so I can at least walk in there now. But I wish I had more space. I like to work large, since I’m a muralist. If I had money, I would do what Picasso did. He would buy a villa and once it was filled with all his art, he would move out, buy another villa and start all over again. His pieces all had a home. I don’t have any room, so it becomes a challenge to store my art."
Each individual piece in Remembering Conscience speaks for itself, but as a whole the exhibit is also very cohesive. How do you develop a series? Do you, for example, work on individual pieces organically and then see how they are connected or do you have a preconceived idea for a collection?
When I work, I always work from the point of view of creating a series. It’s like life to me. Things don’t exist in isolation. All of life is a series; it’s all connected. History is not just American history. It’s human history. I’m not just Chicano. I’m Mexican. I’m Jewish. I’m Japanese. I’m always looking for connections and series. Without a series, it has no strength for me. I also think about my audience. I don’t ask my audience how they are going to see my pieces; I demand they see them a certain way.
What is art to you?
"Art to me is your freedom to create and say whatever you want to say. When I work with my students, regardless of how old they are, I give them a blank piece of paper. Like this [Luis holds up a blank piece of paper]. What do you see?"
I see opportunity. I see a cloud [This second answer is the beer talking].
"Well, there’s one thing that’s more important than that. It’s what some people had in Auschwitz. [He hold up the paper again]. What do you see?"
"Yes, the freedom to say whatever you need to say. I went to an art exhibit once at a Jewish center. I entered the gallery and there it was--about 30 or 40 watercolors about Auschwitz that were painted by Jewish people under the noses of the Nazis. These people used whatever they could—toilet paper, scraps--to create art and document that history. That’s the importance of art. Without art we wouldn’t have those watercolors. You wouldn’t have that Iphone in your hand. You wouldn’t have a car. We wouldn’t have instruments to operate with, because in order for things to be created, they must first be imagined. That’s what art is."