Sunday, September 13, 2009

Biting Into the Holy Enchilada

Olga García Echeverría

Last month, while attending an art show at the Chim Maya Gallery in East Los Angeles, I met and got to chat with one of the featured artists, El Moisés. Born in Cuervos, Baja California and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Moisés has been doodling since he was a child.

I was initially drawn to Moises’ art because of his vivid use of color. I also appreciate the warped movement that many of Moises’ curved lines and shapes create. Are those flames on the canvas swerving or did I just have one too many glasses of red wine?

Another thing that caught my eye was Moisés' religious motifs. I have to confess that religious images both entice and repel me. I'm easily seduced by cute chubby cherubs, but any rendition of a suffering Jesus with his eyes rolling up into his head is sure to send me running the other way.

There are many motifs that prevail in Moisés' work, barrio vatos, crowing roosters, lucha libres, Chicanas in lowriders. However, it was Moisés’ religious pieces that made me the most curious. Why is that bald man praying over blazing enchiladas? What's with all the virgins? What's the story behind that bota Guadalupana? Here's what Moisés shared about a few of his pieces.

Las Enchiladas Pasqual, shown above, is a tribute to the patron saint of the kitchen, San Pasqual. Confession: Prior to my talk with Moisés I didn't even know there was a patron saint of the kitchen, and I was even more surprised to learn that the saint of the kitchen is male. I very much like this detail and I can't wait to use it to convince my nephews to cook for me more often. ¡Que viva San Pasqual y pónganse a cocinar muchachos!

Historically, San Pasqual has been represented as a traditional woodcut figure in religiuos robes. He's serious and very godly. Moises states about his painting, “I wanted to take San Pasqual out of his rigid wood carved shape and make him more of a real person, sitting at a table with his plate of spicy enchiladas, his cuchara, and his vino.” When asked why recasting San Pasqual in a different light was important to him, Moisés' recalls attending church and being surrounded by religious statues and icons that appeared dark, dull, and at times even morbid. "I want to take these same religious figures and make them accessible and fun. That's what I'm playing with." As one of his influences, Moisés mentions El Greco, the 16th century Spanish painter who was well-known and often criticized for his strange shapes and fantastic colors. “At the time of his life,” Moisés notes, “religious art had to be precise and it wasn’t supposed to distract in any way from the worshipping of God. If the colors were too bright or the wings too big or too beautiful it could be cause for controversy or persecution. El Greco broke many of these rule and it's what made his art interesting.”

Moisés readily admits his art work isn't meant to challenge religion as much as expand the perimeters of how religious icons are artistically portrayed and viewed. He is also tapping into collective memory. Take for example, MoisésCalendario de Mi Barrio, which is a depiction of the ubiquitous calendar given to customers at tienditas, bakeries, and mercados.

Whether these calendars feature religious or cultural icons, they are familiar to many of us who grew up in Latino working-class communities. As Moisés points out, “We didn’t have any fancy portraits hanging on the walls. These calendars were our artworks.”

The barrio calendar was one of my favorite pieces in Moisés' show. As I stood before it I was momentarily transported to my mother’s living room, which throughout the years has showcased endless barrio calendars, most of them religious. I also experienced an Alice in Wonderland moment—I felt smaller. This, I later learned, was Moisés’ intention. The painting is 3 X 5 feet and is hung in such a way that it looms over the viewer. Moisés states, “As a child, you experience things from a very different perspective. Everything appears larger than it actually is. Even a churro in a child’s hand and imagination can seem to be as big as a broomstick. The calendars and pictures on our walls always seemed larger than life when we were kids. Later as adults, what we remember as big seems smaller. In this painting I was playing with this childhood memory of perspective and proportion.”

And then there's Moisés’ Guadalupe bota. A unique feature of this painting (perhaps unnoticeable in the picture) is that the canvas is actually shaped like a boot, creating a very cool 3-D effect. When I asked Moises about this piece, he shared, “Boots have always been part of my upbringing and aesthetic. Here in the U.S. I very much enjoy the rockabilly culture. Growing up, I also spent many of my summers in Cuervos, visiting my grandmother and relatives who are mostly farm workers. I recall my uncles always wearing boots when they took me out to the grape, lettuce or watermelon fields. There’s a lot of deep mud in fields and snakes too, so boots are ideal for farmers. As a young boy, I was jealous of my uncle’s boots. They were so cool; I wanted some too.”

At the gallery, when I first spotted the Guadalupe boot on the wall, I immediately went over to where it was hanging. I’m not anti-virgin or anything, but I have to admit that at times I feel bombarded with and even oppressed by the limited female representations in Chican@ culture and art. Although I find Moisés' boot quite beautiful, a part of me wants to shout, “Ay, alright already with the virgins!”

It's a schizophrenic reaction. A part of me is thinking, "No more virgins" and another is simultaneously wishing I could afford to buy the art piece. At the core of my conflicting emotions is what I can only describe as paint-envy. How come Frida, Guadalupe, virgins, and homegirls in lowriders get all the paint? They have become classic female representation in Chican@/Latin@ culture and art. And of course they are an important part of our history and cultural production, but I also wonder where the other barrio women are--the community organizer, the Chicana lawyer who eats tortillas in court, the librarian in a lucha libre struggle with red tape. Or the poet who's also a teacher driving down some congested freeway, not in a cool lowrider, but in a banged up silver Hyundai with a No on Prop 8 sticker on her dented bumper. Moisés, no seas gacho, píntanos a nosotras también.

One thing I learned about Moisés and his artwork this past week is that there's much more than what initially meets the eye. Moises, for example, has multiple talents and aspirations. Besides being a full-time artist, he loves the kitchen. He's been cooking since he was a boy and he claims to make a killer chile con carne and a pretty unique green salsa with hatch chile and nopales. He’s a fan of such shows as Anthony Bourdain, the Cooking Channel, and Project Runway. In fact, fashion design is another one of his passions. Recently, he teamed up with Unbearable Apparel and he's in the process of launching a high-end, couture clothing line. The upcoming clothes line also extends to skateboards and skate gear. He's also currently painting a custom Dia de Los Muertos bike for world-renowned custom bike builder, Paul Yaffe.

To find out more about Moisés and his art:
To find out more about Moisés' clothesline:


SCM from ELA said...

Thanks Olga for the introduction to another artist. Great blog! Keep them coming.

msedano said...

why 1937?

an interesting column. goes to show gente should attend gallery shows with their eyes and mouths open, talk to the artists, dig deeply into the work and workers.

Viva Liz Vega! said...

Your voice came through loud and clear. Is his stuff still showing. I wanna go. I love the calendar art most and will be going through his site today. Thank you, or as they say in my country, Muchas Gracias.

Anonymous said...

Yes, thanks for the column. Good to know, especially for those of us that don't live out in LA/the west coast and don't get an opportunity to see as many artists/galleries :)

Daniel Gonzalez said...

Moises' work will continue to be on display in ChimMaya's East Gallery until October 8th. Try and find time to come and see his work.