April 25, 2008

Tortilla Art for the 21st Century

Art Review by
Robynn Takayama
El Tecolote News

When Rene and Rio Yañez gather people for tortillas, don’t expect a meal with beans and rice. Instead, your eyes are in for a feast including a sketch of Speedy Gonzalez on a tortilla that says, “Transgenic corn makes me speedy”; a tortilla with the immigrants crossing sign embraced in a heart; and gargoyles sitting atop a giant genetic corn husk comprised of kernels of skulls. Welcome to Tortilla Art for the 21st Century, a three-week exhibition of over 25 artists who will paint, print, and adorn tortilla art.

On opening night, The Great Tortilla Conspiracy, the masterminds behind this revival of tortilla art, and guest artists produced their work live at the South of Market cultural center, Somarts, where they encouraged viewers to participate.

Rene Yañez rubbed a clear marker over a piece of paper until an apparition of Frida Kahlo appeared on a tortilla. Sacramento artist Rudy O. Cuellar silk screened images of la Virgen de Guadalupe, Che Guevara, and a flaming heart onto tortillas that were given away to the public. And Nicole Schach, who has been involved with tortilla art since the Conspiracy’s first show at the de Young in 2006, wielded colorful pastels and inks on tortillas reminiscent of traditional Americana tattoos.

The birth of tortilla art

José Montoya, the originator of tortilla art, said he came up with the idea by pure accident in 1970. “I was making tortillas when the phone rang. In the middle of my conversation, I smelled the smoke, knocked the flaming tortilla off the grill, and saw a powerful image on the burnt tortilla lying on the floor.”

Rather than continuing to work on traditional mediums, Montoya began experimenting with this new surface, sacrificing dozens of tortillas as he fine-tuned his technique. “I didn’t want to use paint, just heat,” said Montoya.

By burning the tortilla over direct flame or branding the tortilla with a heated coat hanger, Montoya painted Chicano movement icons like a portrait of Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers’ Huelga eagle, and the Virgin de Guadalupe.

But Montoya’s work had a fair share of critics. A UC Davis cleaning crew tossed the tortillas into the incinerator along with the rest of the trash from a gallery’s closing night party, not realizing they were part of the exhibit. In 1974, two nuns chastised Montoya at a show in San Juan Bautista. “They said I should be asham-ed of wasting tortillas when there are starving people in Africa,” remembered Montoya.

“We’re not wasting food,” protested Rio Yañez. “You could take any artist tool or medium and find a more functional application. But we live in a privileged country. I can step outside my home and buy tortillas from ten different stores. So we’re not using someone else’s food source. We’re using the tortilla as a medium to raise issues about corn ethanol fuels, NAFTA, and tortilla shortages in Mexico.”

In January 2007, the price of tortillas in Mexico rose by 50 percent, threatening the main source of sustenance for many of the country’s poor. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Mexico City. “An enormous volume of corn is being consumed for ethanol production,” wrote Council on Hemispheric Affairs research associate, Eliana Monteforte, in Maize of Deception: How Corn-Based Ethanol Can Lead to Starvation and Environmental Disaster. “The decreasing availability of it as a food crop and for livestock consumption has contributed to the rise of corn futures from $2.80 to $4.38 a bushel.”

And these profits are not staying in Mexico. Despite the close relationship America’s first people had with corn, even worshipping the god of corn, journalist John Ross says, “competition with highly subsidized U.S. farmers is driving their Mexican counterparts into bankruptcy.” According to Ross, Wal-Mart is now Mexico’s number one retailer of tortillas.

Reviving Tortilla Art

Beautifying a tortilla isn’t denigrating it, according to Professor Ella Diaz, a visiting lecturer in Urban Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute. “Tortilla art builds on Chicano art traditions,” she said. “Treating the tortilla as a canvas offends western art traditions, which is what Chicano art has always been doing. Silkscreen posters made by political artists for benefits and actions were initially discarded by galleries as nothing more than announcements, while Jackson Pollack’s dripped paintings were considered avant-garde.”

The Great Tortilla Conspiracy’s work also invokes Chicano art’s tradition of irony. In a piece created by Rene, religious iconography is paper collaged onto the tortilla, juxtaposing spiritual sustenance with nutritional sustenance. In another piece produced by Rio, the beloved Hello Kitty, merchandised on pencil cases, backpacks, and stationery, sits reading a book on Chicano art.

But comic book artist Julia Wertz’s contribution to the de Young show in 2006 best describes tortilla art’s revival. It’s an illustration of a young girl who looks at the piece in the exhibit, licks her lips, and thinks, “The Great Tortilla Conspiracy: it’s the most delicious art I’ve never eaten.”

For more information go to www.tortillaconspiracy.com

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