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November 15, 2003 - January 10, 2004 at Patricia Correia Gallery, Santa Monica

by Marlena Donohue

The word tequitqui comes up in critical writing about Meso American art in the centuries after the conquest. Tequitqui refers to an indescribable, irrepressible indigenous vision, an undertone voice found in art made by native Mexicans or their heirs and detectable even as the Jesuits with their mandate of encomienda (literally “to entrust,” but practiced as paternalism and slavery) tried to cajole and beat that millennial heritage out of them.

We see it in statues of St. Sebastian in which Renaissance draftsmanship exported from Spain to church workshops became--in the hands of Indian craftsmen--elongated and marvelously warped beyond any Baroque model (Meso American art from its Olmec inception has been non-representational, non-rational and highly abstract). We see it in this ultra intense way of communicating the seen that goes beyond the staged emotion of the Inquisition

It’s been called magic realism, surrealism, social realism, but all those words are too specific. This vibe is often ineffable and related to nothing as tangible as narrative or form. But wherever you encounter Mexican art--in Kahlo or Izquierdos, Goitia or Siquieros, Tamayo or the ASCO artists--it is there.

This essential Mexican-ness is visible in the work of David Botello and Wayne Healy (the “Healy” comes by way of an Irish great grandad). Though they have been doing each their own easel work all along, Botello and Healy are best known for thousands of feet of murals across L.A. over the last thirty years under the banner East Los Streetscapers. Their origins in public functional art are rooted in Meso America. Ancient Mexican cultures produced great fresco paintings; there was no such thing as art for its own sake, and art in pre Colombian Mexico was ever linked to collective use. Beyond that, the great Mexican mural movement meshed socialism, modernism and indigenism, so Botello and Healy come to their art--street and easel --with deep ties to an ethos that is quintessentially Mexican.

David Botello, “Apocalyptic
Visions,” 2003, a/c, 30 x 24”.

David Botello, "Nature Wears Her
Death Mask," 2003, a/c, 24 x 36".

David Botello, "Wishful Thinking at
Hollenbeck Park," 2003, a/c, 48 x 60".

In the late-70s to mid-80s, we were not so much noticing this work for what made it unique as demanding a place for the underrepresented. We did not notice Gronk, Carlos Almaraz, or Frank Romero as much as the dung delivered to LACMA to get their point across; we did not notice Frida Kahlo’s intense ties to her culture as we were too busy marveling at the prices Our Lady of the Eyebrows was pulling at Sotheby’s. A close look at the work itself took second shrift to notions of reparation and exoticism. But that politicization of Latino/Chicano art got us here; and here happens to include a gaggle of highly recognized Chicano painters like Botello and Healy, with high profile patrons like Cheech Marin, and a local gallery like Correia willing to make this genre its main staple.

Wayne Healy, “Bolero Familiar,"
2003, a/c, 80 x 103”.

Wayne Healy, “Don’t Go
Joe,” 2003, a/c, 36 x 44”.

Wayne Healy, “Carwash
Chisme," 2003, a/c, 44 1/2 x 72".
Both artists make intensely expressionistic work; bodies bend like plastic, colors are neon. Decoration is not superfluous, but a kind of glue holding together an emotional and visual pitch. The result in both cases is this unapologetic exuberance that is simply not at home in Western art; when Matisse or Hockney are exuberant it is controlled and classical; when Beckman or Schnabel are intense, it is leaden. This work is voluptuous if it is anything, and in front of it you feel like you have been hitting the pulque.

Botello is the draftsman of the two, the realist. Yet a sense of the fantastic is always mitigating any straight, logical read. Twin portraits of Botello and his wife recall Posada’s illustrations for penny broadsheets--mini-newspapers of the early 1900s that told current events with pictures of calaveras (a dual Indian and Catholic symbol of regeneration). Botello paints himself in white face, wrapped in a serape, his mouth scored with the vertical lines that mark a cadaver’s sunken jaw. From his hat hangs a dismembered hand and a keepsake heart (the two things he uses to make his art). Behind him in an apocalyptic scene, a tiny Aztec warrior awaits a silvery serpent descending from the heavens—a reference to the Aztec cosmology foretelling that the Plumed Serpent would come down to bridge heaven and earth (Botello cleverly notes an anecdote that the Aztecs believed the silver haired Cortez might herald such an event, so they put down their arms, undone by faith). The image of Botello’s wife recalls Posada’s Calavera Carmelina, wearing a feathered Sunday bonnet on a skull-like face, as President Bush looms above much as J.P. Morgan subversively appeared in the public and canvas works of Rivera and Siqueiros.

Healy took a Masters in engineering and then an MFA in fine art. He’s no dummy. He traces his art genes back to his grandfather, who made murals in the 1920s. He is happy to tell you that his work is autobiographical. Bolero Familiar unfolds a night of spontaneous music-making in a vertiginous, homey space where the walls undulate and the robust anatomy of a chica on maracas is formed of athletic volumes accented with electric ribbons of line. There is a street fight; a guy washes his car in front of an apartment as gossips (a delicious Latin pastime) shoot the breeze, and water from the hose pours in a stream of sensuous shape. Nothing stands still; exuberant form mirrors exuberant narrative. The story is not specific, but a generic message of conviviality, of territory and hearth, of joyous mayhem. Healy has said that, though intensely and proudly Chicano, his work is about what it means to be alive. Indeed, certain themes--nature’s ubiquity, family, love, war, lust, roots--while irrevocably Mexican, are very much human. That’s part of what makes this stuff so appealing.