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'Border Bang': Artist Jorge Gutierrez and the vivid pop culture of the US-Tijuana border

by Michelle Lanz | The Frame

Artist Jorge Gutierrez, left, and The Frame host John Horn at the Gregorio Escalante Gallery in Chinatown, which is presenting Gutierrez's "Border Bang" show. Michelle Lanz/KPCC

When you hear people talking about the border these days, it’s often about the wall a certain GOP nominee wants to build.

But for artist and animator Jorge Gutierrez, the border was a source of inspiration and wonder. Growing up in Tijuana, Gutierrez crossed that border almost every day to attend school in the U.S. Along the way he was struck by the mash-up of American and Mexican pop culture being peddled by vendors.

His experience crossing the border over the years is the inspiration for his new gallery show, "Border Bang." It’s a collection of 57, vividly-colored paintings depicting pop culture figures Gutierrez was first exposed to during his childhood in Tijuana.If you saw Gutierrez's Day of the Dead-themed animated movie, "The Book of Life," you'll recognize his style.

We recently caught up with Gutierrez as he was preparing to open his show at the Gregorio Escalante Gallery in L.A.'s Chinatown.

Interview Highlights:

On how his exposure to pop culture along the border influenced his show:

This is the stuff I've had in my head since I was a kid. As you can imagine, the border was a big part of my life growing up. So this show is just me. I say I'm like a chef and I just couldn't stop myself from cooking all these dishes.

A lot of middle-class Mexican families send their kids to go to the U.S. to learn English. So everyday I would cross the border and I was bombarded by all these bootlegs of American culture. It was kind of a shocking experience to be exposed to all this stuff because a lot of times I had no idea who these characters were. So I made up stories in my head. I didn't know that Mickey Mouse and Mr. T and Elvis didn't hang out. I just got used to seeing them together.

It was roughly two hours every morning [waiting to cross]. Sometimes the border guards would poke my belly and say, Did you swallow any [drug-filled] condoms? Obviously, I was nine years old and so I thought, That must be a really good cereal!

Paintings by artist Jorge Gutierrez.
Paintings by artist Jorge Gutierrez. Jorge Gutierrez

To me, Superman is the ultimate immigrant. He left his planet, he came here, he pretends to be like us, and secretly makes our world better. To me that's the perfect immigrant.

Lucha Libre is Mexican wrestling, but "Luchó Libre" means, He fought to be free. It's about all the openly gay wrestlers in Mexico. You know, Mexico is kind of a homophobic society, but in Mexican wrestling, they are crushing that. People cheer for these guys in a way that you don't see in other parts of the culture. 

Paintings by artist Jorge Gutierrez.
Paintings by artist Jorge Gutierrez. Jorge Gutierrez

I did not know who Tupac [Shakur] was until one day I saw his T-shirts show up on the border. He was right next to Jesus and other very important figures so I figured this is a very important person. Then I found out who he was and I fell in love with his music. It's such a tragic story, but the border told me who to listen to.

One of the things I love about the border productions is that they reflect the fears and dreams of the people crossing. So the border tells you how to feel. For example, they would have an El Chapo halloween mask so kids know, Hey, that's a bad guy. Trump — they have piñatas so you know that's someone we should hit with a stick. 

On how he ended up painting 57 paintings in five months:

Originally it was only going to be nine [paintings]. Then I just started painting and I got to the point where I would get bored waiting for the paint to dry, so I would start another painting. Then I got to the point where I was painting nine paintings at a time. This is something I did at night and on the side. I would put my son to sleep and then put on "Rocky III" and paint Mr. T. Whatever I was painting I would put on either the [related] record or the movie and then I would paint for three to four hours. It was crazy. Our house started looking like some crazy painter used to live there. The day we had to ship all the paintings, my wife got really depressed. She said, All our children are gone.

On his artistic heroes and inspirations:

My two big art heroes are Basquiat and Picasso. I love also Mexican folk art. Then, I work in animation so it's kind of a mix of all those things. And that's the border, right? You take things from all over the world and you make them your own. 

As an artist I have to keep doing stuff that hopefully informs people. To me, I have two audiences: I've always been deemed not Mexican enough by Mexican audiences and too Mexican for American audiences. But I think because I grew up on the border, I'm very comfortable disappointing both.

On the reaction he's received about the content of his work:

What's been crazy is social media. I've been putting all of this stuff on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and so people write me directly saying, I love this piece or It reminds me of this. "The Book of Life" was very different. But here, to talk to people who came to the gallery or who saw the pictures [via social media] in Japan or in Ireland — that's kind of amazing. As an artist you dream of having that interaction. 

Paintings by artist Jorge Gutierrez.
Paintings by artist Jorge Gutierrez. Jorge Gutierrez

Spider-Man to all us Mexicans looks like a Mexican wrestler because of the mask design. Then you learn about his story and you find out, Oh, he really is a wrestler — [because] he hides his identity. I loved how in Spanish, Mary Jane basically means marijuana. So as a kid I thought, Wow, Spider-Man really is into marijuana.

I'm super proud of [the painting], "El Ultimo Super Macho." Super macho is something that I grew up with from my grandfather. He told me, there's two types of Mexican men: machos and super machos. The difference between the machos and super machos is that the macho guy fights everybody, but the super macho guy doesn't fight anyone. So it was like Mexican zen. Then he told me the macho guy cheats on his wife. The super macho guy is super loyal and never cheats on his wife. I asked him, Grandfather, are you Super Macho? He said, No, I'm not. So it was something to aspire to. It's my dream that when I die, I'm super macho. 

Jorge Gutierrez's "Border Bang" is at the Gregorio Escalante Gallery through Aug. 14.

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