José Luis Rodríguez Guerra:
José Luis Rodríguez Guerra Artist, farm worker, union organizer, curator, gallery owner, arts commissioner, easel painter, muralist, sculptor, and printmaker; these are the roles José Luis Rodríguez Guerra has played in his long, outstanding career.
He was born in 1953 in the City of Sabinas, Coahuila, México, into a family of five boys, and from childhood he showed talent for drawing and painting. His parents encouraged him to pursue an education in business, and in 1968 he graduated from the Instituto Hispano Americano in Frontera, Coahuila.
In 1969 his family migrated to the United States to live in Oregon and Rodríguez Guerra became a farm worker, studying English and drawing in his spare time. Along with millions of other migrant farm workers, he experienced the oppression and discrimination of the early 1970s, and in response he became involved in both labor rights and migrant education, first in Oregon and then in Idaho, where he worked for the Idaho Migrant Council (IMC) in Boise, Idaho. Drawing on his business background, he served the IMC as a bookkeeper and accountant, helping to run health clinics, daycare centers, legal services, and educational and cultural centers.
At the same time, Rodríguez Guerra continued to be drawn to the arts on a deeper level. While working with the Migrant Council, he began to take painting, printmaking and sculpture classes at Boise State University, and in 1977 worked with the Boise Art Gallery to organize an exhibition of Latin American art, an experience that led him to dedicate himself completely to art. In 1978 José Luis quit his job with the Idaho Migrant Council and left for Mexico to study art. There he lived for a time in Mexico City and traveled throughout Mexico with his wife Gloria and twin daughters Xtabay and Ixchel. During this visit, José Luis devoted his time to encountering and discovering his connection with the ancient Mexican cultures, the vital energy of the Mexican muralists, and the emerging avant-garde artists of the times, finding in his culture “a vast, rich fountain of inspiration.” In the 1970s and 1980s, Idaho was undergoing a regional art renaissance. José Luis returned to Boise in 1979 and created the Boise Art Group with artist-friend David Airhart. This was an experimental project that presented art exhibitions in empty spaces in the city, and eventually developed into the Art Attack Gallery in 1981. Rodríguez Guerra and Airhart showed the work of local artists, and other artists of the Northwest and West Coast. At that time José Luis met and became a close friend of the internationally renowned American masters Ed and Nancy Kienholz, who had their own gallery in Hope, Idaho. Through Ed Kienholz, José Luis met American master painter Sam Francis and arranged for him to present his work at Art Attack, in their inaugural exhibition. This was followed by shows by Luis Jiménez, Peter Voulkos, Marsha Burns and many others. In 1984 and 1985 José Luis collaborated with Sid White, art director at Evergreen College, on exhibitions of Chicano and Latino art in the Northwest, and moved to Seattle in 1985 to be closer to a larger arts community.
In Seattle José Luis established a large art studio in Rainier Square, opening another gallery, the Art Attack Alternative Space. Meanwhile, during the 1980s and early 1990s he participated in a number of group shows, with invitations from The Brooklyn Art Museum, The Braunstein/Quay Gallery in San Francisco, the Instituto Cultural Mexicano in San Antonio, TX, the Miami Fine Arts Center in Florida, the State of Washington Governor’s Exhibition in Olympia, Washington, Casa de las Americas in Madrid, Spain, and The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Santiago, Chile. He also mounted a series of successful one-person shows at his gallery.
From 1992 to 1996 José Luis became a Seattle Arts Commission member, presenting to the public eight exhibitions entitled “Eyes on Public Art,” that represented part of the thirty-year-old art collection of the City of Seattle, and from 1994 to 1998 he was a member of the Centro Mexicano del Estado de Washington of the Mexican Consulate. In his capacity as a cultural representative in these organizations, José Luis was instrumental in bringing other important exhibitions to Seattle, among them “Chicano Codices” and “Three Generations of Mexican Masters”, in 1994. The Mexican art exhibition included the work of Mexican master artists such as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rufino Tamayo, and other renowned masters.
Since the end of the 1990s, although José Luis has worked on numerous cultural projects, and participated in a number of group exhibitions, he has primarily focused on creating the Rodríguez Guerra Art Studio to show his art. He exhibits his own work, and sometimes the work of others, at his Art Studio, a large, impressive space in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, sharing his images with the public each month as he opens his Studio during the Pioneer Square Artwalk. José Luis also honors the Day of the Dead each year in special celebrations that include exhibitions, altars and performances. He has created a unique environment where art can happen in unexpected ways. There one can see his semi-abstract, figurative paintings, often mural-sized, that explore the essential questions of birth, life and death, informed by his affinities with the cultures of ancient Mexico, and his awareness of universal experience, along with a subtle expression of his social consciousness. The works are painted in mixed media on board, with the jewel-like qualities of Northern Renaissance panel paintings, as well as the drama and scale of the Baroque. In his paintings one might see a magician with hands full of light, images of the Days of the Dead, the totemic raven of the Northwest, blazing oil wells in a bleak desert, or jaguars with leaping men in a mysterious landscape. From the beginning until the present his paintings have been a remarkable blend of surrealism and expressionism, presenting Mexican and universal mythological themes, dreamlike, haunting, and full of emotion.
January 15, 2009