During the last ten years I have painted traditional subjects seen from the lens of my Latino perspective. For me, it has meant painting people and places affected by the uncertainty of impermanence. Latino immigrants. Places slated for demolition, toxic sites, and historic buildings in cities that are too broke to restore them. After some reflection, I have decided these places mirror of my own experience in the US. But, I also know that mine is not a dystopian vision of the world. Like any artist, I love to engage in aesthetic pleasures, and through the practice of painting I have also discovered my gaze to be cultural and gendered.
Painting The Figure
As a young person I was most influenced by the figurative painting and social issue themes of Puerto Rican painters like Francisco Oller and Rafael Tufiño, and the Farm Security Administration photographs of Jack and Irene Delano.
During college I was completely unaware that figurative painting was going to make a comeback. Almost every instructor in my art program was doing something else. Once in the Bay Area, I had the chance to attend regular figure painting sessions, where I discovered my approach to the figure was not going to be expressionist. There was something else I was seeking and it took me a while to articulate it.
During the recession I worked the nerve to ask undocumented Latino immigrants to pose in a studio setting. I began with the lofty goal of aiming to confront the viewer with the sitters’ human qualities to counteract the cartoons we see in the media, because I wanted the viewer see my sitters as self-contained, three-dimensional, complex characters. I believe I am most effective at this when working from a live model. Although I feel I lack her sense of humor, it was the work of Alice Neel who convinced me I should paint while engaging with the model.
Painting The Landscape
Joaquín Sorolla’s methods and paintings have appealed to me throughout the years, since they showed what can be accomplished working outdoors on a large format. My landscape paintings developed during the California plein air revival I experienced when I arrived in 1985. Everybody I knew outside of the art school environment was painting outdoors, and I joined them. I didn’t have a studio, and I loved that drawing and painting outdoors forces you to interact with people who might not visit a museum to see art. At first with watercolors and later with oil and acrylics, I tried to shed light on environmental and social issues through my choice of painting locations in the SF Bay Area.
After a few years I wanted to go where other outdoor painters did not go, to paint places and urban views from my own cultural perspective. This means painting “Latino” places but also, finding and seeing places that appeal to my caribbean aesthetics. These go beyond color choices and may have to do with formative years spent exposed to the high-contrast, cluttered spaces of the island landscapes.
I work with a limited palette of 3-4 colors, chosen from a larger group of eight non-earth colors. The limited palette is chosen on the spot depending on the kind of light and on the colors that will figure in the composition. I paint on panel or canvas, mostly with bristle brushes and stand oil, or with lots of polymer medium if using acrylic. I use the palette knife at first, then a brush.
I paint non-professional Latino models. They come to me via word-of-mouth and are paid the going model rate. Their poses and clothes are chosen by them. They stay engaged because they are able to talk with me while they pose. The drawing stage goes quickly thanks to a large viewfinder. Then I spend the next few hours working quickly in oil, and might finish with the help of a reference photo. If I can afford it, I have them come in for a second session.
Outdoors, I work year-round in acrylics or oils. I research a location’s history then use Google Earth to find the best place in which to paint. I use larger canvasses (2 x 3′) and do the first 3-6 hours over one or two visits to the location. The last two hours are spent in my studio making minor revisions with the aid of a cell phone photo.
I am asked again and again why don’t I focus on only one of these genres. I cannot imagine doing one without the other, even though so far, only the landscapes sell. My response is that they are like the legs of a table, they support each other.
I hope my work can persuade the viewer to regard these subjects more than once. I hope the viewer is moved, or at least stirred.