KPCC cultural correspondent Marc Haefele reviews “Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz,” at LACMA until December 3.
Carlos Almaraz was not a great Chicano painter. He was a great painter, period. You can see for yourself at LACMA’s new exhibit, “Playing with Fire.”
Almaraz was born in 1941 in Mexico City, but his parents quickly moved … first to Chicago, then to East LA in 1950. His experience of these widely differing environments probably inflected his vision of the world. He attended Garfield High, went on to CalState LA, Loyola, and Otis; tried to make it in the New York art scene for five years; then returned to LA in 1970. In between New York and East Los was a brief visit to Mexico to learn about its art, to explore what he increasingly saw as his Chicano heritage.
In the 1970s, Almaraz became close to the struggling UFW, Los Lobos, and the Teatro Campesino. He embraced the agitprop of the time: his archetypal symbol was the clenched fist of revolt. He joined the Chicano artist collaborative known as Los Four. The ideal was “Art for Mankind:” art, such as mural art, for the public, not the rich man’s living room. He then said, “An artist should carry his studio around in his pocket.”
Suddenly, however, there came another kind of revolt. Some said he was selling out, but he said: “I had to return to the studio — to develop ideas…that were unpolitical, that were really my ideas.” He became, in his own words, an "American artist who happened to be Chicano."
His technique ranges from the literally figurative to almost abstract blurs and splatters, sometimes all in the same painting. There is a sense of layered meaning, and an immensely singular use of color, but his figures are usually representative and even sensual.
His new fascination appeared to be with ideas based on world myths, transplanted into his own personal LA, whose nocturnal Echo Park flaunted purple lagoons with peaked bridges and small craft like paper boats, whose bright lit skyscrapers sway in a giant, concrete cumbia …
Where prim little Eastside bungalows can offer the solace of home and hearth or can just as easily burst into fiery explosion … Where terrifying car crashes offer all the colors of a garden in springtime… Where stag-headed buck-dancers flit through twilight landscapes of drifting symbols…
Where sinister magicians hold forth on mystic stages… All in a gathering darkness that seems increasingly to enfold his work until his tragic death by AIDS in 1989.
This is probably the most comprehensive show of Almaraz’s work ever presented. Maybe it's the most impressive manifestation so far of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, an institutional attempt at an exploration of Latin American and Latino art and the way it affects and is affected by Los Angeles.
"Playing with Fire" will truly shake up your mind.
(Marc's audio review includes excerpts from a 1981 Almaraz documentary by Sheila Ruth, and an in-progress film being produced by Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya and Almaraz’s widow Elsa.)