Myth, Magic & Memory:
José Luis Rodríguez Guerra is among a select group of truly talented Chicano and Latino artists currently active in the Pacific Northwest. Born in the state of Coahuila, in northern Mexico, he immigrated to the United States at age seventeen and, despite the business degree he had earned the previous year (1968) from the Instituto Comercial Hispano Americano of Frontera, Coahuila, he worked as a farm laborer for several years in Oregon. These experiences made him aware of the suffering and unfairness endured by Mexican immigrants engaged in this type of work, and eventually lead him to become a labor and social activist. Accordingly, between 1971 and 1975 he worked for several programs and non-profit organizations devoted to improving the working and living conditions of migrant workers in the region notably, the Idaho Migrant Council (IMC).
A precocious artist, Rodríguez Guerra had been sharpening his abilities from an early age. Indeed, he recalls being disciplined frequently by teachers and other school authorities when he was twelve and thirteen years old on account of his constant daydreaming, and for doodling in class–"drawing unconsciously," as he refers to it.
Having moved to Idaho in 1972, in 1975 he studied art, printmaking, and sculpture at Boise State University. Seeking inspiration, he paid frequent visits to the Boise Art Museum and other art venues. His coming of age as an artist, therefore, took place in the Pacific Northwest. Beginning in 1977, he immersed himself completely in the art world and thus began to meet other artists, curators, museum and gallery directors who would become important influences in his development, Beth Sellars, Ed Kienholz, Sam Francis, Luis Jiménez, Peter Voulkos, Charlotta Kotik, and Sid White, among others. In 1978 he resigned his post in the IMC and three years later, in partnership with artist David Airhart, established the Art Attack Gallery in Boise, Idaho.
In 1984, Sid White, a retired professor and then Director of the Exhibit Touring Services at Evergreen State College, spearheaded the historical Chicano and Latino Artists of the Pacific Northwest group traveling exhibit, in which Rodríguez Guerra and eight other artists participated. The following year, after an interview he held with me, in my role as editor of the journal Metamorfosis (a conversation that remains unpublished), José Luis relocated to Seattle and established his studio in the Belltown neighborhood. Subsequently, he opened the Art Attack Alternative Space in Rainier Square, in downtown Seattle, and later moved to the current site of his studio/gallery in the heart of Pioneer Square. During his years in Seattle, he has been extremely active; not only in terms of his own production and the many trips he has taken abroad, but also as an advocate for other artists. Among other functions, he served two consecutive terms in the Seattle Arts Commission, from 1992 until 1996.
While he has made incursions into printmaking and metal sculpture, and also has conducted a number of other experiments, Rodríguez Guerra's main techniques and media have remained constant over the years. Most of his works are paintings–mixed media on prepared wood and masonite–that vary in size (the largest panels reaching 75 x 104 inches). Ranging from the figurative to a quasi abstract expressionism that tends to conceal his accomplished drawing and portraiture skills, some of his works border on the "surreal." Far from an imitative form of "surrealism," however, this is a result of his penchant for mythical and magical themes and motives. Some of those elements find their immediate meaning in the artist's keen awareness of his pre-Columbian roots, of course; but they often blend with U. S. and other "universal" sources. This is the case, for example, in Interrupted Myth (2006), where the central allegory is the foundation of Tenochtitlán, the capital city of the Aztecs. Nevertheless, the eagle in this painting is not the Aztec bird perched on a cactus and devouring a serpent, as traditionally depicted in the Mexican coat of arms. Instead, we see here the bald eagle, the imperial icon of the U.S. The predator bird is about to drive its talons into the back of the leaning man who stands between the two animals, the eagle and the snake. Besides the obvious Biblical reference the snake and the naked man embody, we can also detect a subtle reference to the myth of Prometheus.
Other paintings are frank expressions of Rodríguez's concern with contemporary issues notably, war and political conflict, as some of his titles clearly indicate: Afghanistan (2001), Bosnia (2001), Baghdad Nights (2004), Iraq, Greed for Power (2005), Fires in the Desert (2005), etc. Immigration, segregation, and US–Mexico border matters are also an essential part of his immediate commentary, as illustrated by The Curse (2007).
Without falling into derivative or imitative pitfalls, the parallels between Rodríguez Guerra's expression and techniques and those of the classics are notable. This can be particularly perceived in his use of color and the play of light and shadow, where one can detect reverberations of Caravaggio, the great master of the ciaro oscuro technique, Dürer, Rembrandt, José de Ribera, and many others. Some similarities are mere coincidences; for example, Rodríguez's extraordinary affinity with the contemporary Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum. In reality, this resemblance is not surprising once we consider their common classical influences and the homage both painters pay to the Dutch masters. At times, however, deliberate transcultural correspondences, and even "inter-textual" games, become utterly obvious in Rodríguez. This is the case, for example, with the connection between Lupe: Golden Earrings (2005) and Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Goya can also be cited as a palpable influence for Rodríguez Guerra. The likeness of some of his images with Goya's self-portraits and other paintings, El coloso, for instance, are clear expressions of this connection. Naturally, since conflict and human violence are major concerns of Rodríguez, The Horrors of War series and other works by Goya, including his pinturas negras, find a peculiar
echo in many of the Chicano's pictures. But whereas in some of Goya's paintings, such as his famous El tres de mayo de 1808, as other critics have observed before, the Spanish patriots are individualized beings while the French soldiers are represented as anonymous, faceless characters who wield power and practice their repressive function in a mechanical manner, in Rodríguez's works, on the other hand, everyone, victims as well as executioners, all who participate in the acts of war, are often anonymous. It is the human condition itself, in its paradigmatic dimensions of anguish, alienation, and suffering that lies at the heart of his expression.
Yet, Rodríguez also pursues a process of healing through his art. He does so by appealing to magic, myth, and the ancestral memory of a primordial time. This is clearly conveyed in Cipactli (2007), for example. Shaman and sage figures are common throughout his paintings: Iluminado (2000), Man with Bird (2002), I Give You My Heart (2004), etc. Often, mankind is presented in a natural state, devoid of clothing or any other artifice. Paradoxically, however, the painter also seems to forecast a potentially bleak future–see, for example, Annunciation (2000) and Prophecy (2006). Consequently, the loneliness of the human figure cast against a barren wasteland–the natural desert, of course, but also the one that man has manufactured for himself, and which now he is about to leave behind as an absurd legacy for future generations. This is the painter's loud protest; the warning he issues urging us to beware of ourselves, of our own nature, is what Rodríguez Guerra voices with his brushstrokes, as in Death Capsule (2001), an image that seems to mirror César Vallejo's verses: "Beware, Spain, of your own Spain! Beware of the sickle without the hammer and the hammer without the sickle! Beware of the victim despite himself, the executioner despite himself, and the neutral one despite himself! [...] Beware of the skull without the cross-bones, and the cross-bones without the skull! [...] Beware of the future!"
The body of works that José Luis Rodríguez Guerra has amassed over the last three decades
is both extensive and stunning. His distinct and often prophetic voice is the result of his natural
talent coupled with years of practice, the application of rigorous technique, and the continuous
exploration of the human condition through myth, magic, and ancestral memory.