June 14 2002

San Diego Artist Explores History of the American Continent

By Yvette tenBerge

A pale-skinned Venus is lounging across a bed and gazing into a mirror propped up by a precocious cupid. Scrawled across the goddess’ backside is the word “PERU” and a black, dotted trail that marks the path taken by Francisco Pizarro during his bloody invasion of this South American country in the 1500s.

Perú: Francisco Pizarro, 1524-1533; 1995.

This piece, entitled “Peru: Francisco Pizarro, 1524 - 1533,” is one of 36 selections in Raúl Guerrero’s most recent exhibition, which he loosely calls “a history of the Hispanic and Anglo cultures in the Americas.” This exhibit, which is housed in North Park’s hybrid, a gallery located at 3813 Ray Street, is part of a three-part project that took this well-known, San Diego artist more than a decade to complete.

Mr. Guerrero paces before gouache and pastel images of a Native American warrior, a shipwrecked soldier, an outlaw from the Old West and a woman draped in Incan jewelry, before delving into the evolution of his latest series.

“For about ten years I have examined the history of the American continents, and it evolved gradually into a three-part project,” says Mr. Guerrero. “The first part examines the history of Latin America, the second part examines the history of European America and the third part examines the way in which the first two parts converge in Southern California in contemporary time.”

Raúl Guerrero at Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City (1993).

Mr. Guerrero, 56, was raised in National City, and he believes that his “interest in identity” stems, in part, from his childhood, a great deal of which was spent traveling throughout the Southwest with his parents, both of whom labored in the fields as itinerant farm workers.

When discussing his origins Mr. Guerrero does not simply state his birthplace (Brawley, California) or his ethnicity. Jumping back in time, he paints a portrait of a courageous, uneducated grandfather who left the Mexican state of Coahuila for the United States at the age of 13, and a refined grandmother who was raised in Northern Mexico by a Mexican mother and a French father.

“My mother and father met at a farm labor camp up in the San Joaquin Valley. Here’s this really great looking woman, and you have this guy, my father, who’s an Indian,” says Mr. Guerrero. “When they got together it was dynamite.”

“I’ve always found the issue of choice to be very important. My choice is to examine the culture that we live in rather than doing ‘art for art’s sake.’ I came from a culture where narrative is so strongly embedded,” says Mr. Guerrero, listing “musical forms” and “storytelling” as examples. “This probably affects the way I see things.”

Mr. Guerrero did not simply recreate existing textbook images of times, places and people while on his latest quest. Each of his colorful pieces includes elements from vastly different centuries and continents. Strip away the costumes or jewelry worn by each subject, and the viewer could very well be looking at the face of a 21st century neighbor.

Myrtle Avenue: San Diego, California; 2001.

Toby Kamps has been the Curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCA) for more than four years. He recalls his first introduction to Mr. Guerrero, whom he identifies as “one of the great artists” living and working in San Diego, back in 1998. The MCA housed the exhibit: “Raúl M. Guerrero: Problemas y Misterios Maravillosos de los Indios.”

“I especially love the sense of romance and intrigue that Raúl Guerrero captures, and the sense of smoky glamour present in all of his work,” says Mr. Kamp, who describes Mr. Guerrero as a “master draftsman” who possesses an “elegant, loose representational painting style.” “He is always drawing out history and looking for the humor and drama in it.”

Stephen Sears and Leslie Ryan recently opened the hybrid in hopes of creating an exhibition space that targets emerging and mid-career artists. Although Ms. Ryan has known Mr. Guerrero since 1987, Mr. Sears only recently became familiar with his work. He highlights the diversity of the manner in which Mr. Guerrero executes his pieces.

“Some are meticulously rendered, while others have an extraordinary economy of line and detail. Raúl is telling a complicated story, but he is finding common threads by shifting time and geography,” says Mr. Sears. “He is visually describing very solemn moments in history, yet he is able to do it with a humor and lightness that is very accessible.”

Ms. Ryan points to “Trade Secrets of the C.I.A.: The Che Guevara File” as a selection that holds the “key to the significance” of Mr. Guerrero’s exhibit. At first glance, these nine ink drawings resemble little more than enlarged, comic book-like portrayals of incidents in the life of a revolutionary icon. Take a closer look, however, and it becomes evident that each, individual drawing raises timeless questions about mankind.

“The ‘Trade Secrets’ indicates that the pressures of migration, colonization and economics that formed the Americas are not static,” says Ms. Ryan. “We are still in a constant ebb and flow of exploitation, infiltration and exploration.”

After explaining the significance behind most of his pieces, Mr. Guerrero stops at these nine drawings. He points to a portrait he calls “The Blind Man,” and recounts his interaction with this man in Managua, Nicaragua back in 1990.

While drawing in the “largest, dustiest and poorest” central market place he has ever seen in Latin America, Mr. Guerrero came across Felix Alberto Padilla, a “blind man wearing torn, red pants.” He had bare feet and an unshaven face.

“He asked me where I was from, and I answered Los Angeles, as generally most people there don’t recognize San Diego. Upon my saying this, his face lit up. He asked if I knew his cousin Hilda Cabresta, who lived in Los Angeles,” says Mr. Guerrero, who laughs softly when recalling Mr. Padilla’s question. “I explained to him that Los Angeles was a pretty large place, but his innocence of the world touched me, and I also began to wonder about the immigrant Hilda Cabresta in Southern California.”

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