Latino Artists: Islas, Telles, and Maldonado at the Presa House Gallery
The Presa House Gallery was co-founded by interdisciplinary artist and art educator, Jenelle Esparza, and artist, designer, and independent curator, Rigoberto Luna. The Gallery hosted a two-part exhibition and artist exchange on March 28, 2022. The exhibition, “Crossing Borders: Tres de Oeste,” includes three artists: Ricardo Islas, Vicente Telles, and Brandon Maldonado, and is open by appointment through April 30th.
I. Ricardo Islas
Ricardo Islas grew up in Calexico, California, a border town two hours east of San Diego. He began painting in 2000 shortly after moving to San Diego.
Islas paints the daily lives of Mexicans and Chicanos of the borderlands. He seeks to interpret their experiences in a social and cultural context. Some of his paintings have a fanciful, even humorous side to them. He acknowledged that often he is “trying to expose the harsh reality of life.” He revealed in his artist statement that humor had a purpose in his art: “I sometimes use funny imagery, but there’s always a more profound message hidden for the viewer to discover in my work.” Islas credits Jose Clemente Orozco, Frida Kahlo, and Francisco Goya for his artistic inspiration.
Islas noted that the inspiration for his subject matter comes from many sources and occasions, “including a funny saying, or a story told at a bar.” He also paints people who have some connection to his personal life. He explained, “sometimes, I depict those people or images as toys.” In his painting “Paletas Mi Barrio,” a Mexican figure wearing a hat and a plaid shirt emerges out of a cup. The paleta vendor resembles a fanciful toy-like figure, a purposeful rending by Islas. A Chicano couple riding in a lowrider sipping a beer may have been inspired by everyday life in San Diego–perhaps a ride through the famed Chicano Park in Logan Heights.
Islas is a storyteller giving “the viewer another side of Mexican/Chicano culture that may be unfamiliar to them.” However, there are also more serious topics that Islas addresses, such as gentrification leading to barrio housing displacement. One of the earliest gentrification fights mounted by Latinos occurred in 1970 in Islas’s hometown of San Diego when Chicanos fought off developers interested in the Logan Heights property facing the bay. Islas’s painting, “Our Barrio is not For Sale,” speaks to a modern episode of displacement in his community. The high cost of housing has deprived many Latinos in Southern California of homeownership, a path to the American Dream. Islas uses his art to call the viewers’ attention to cultural icons and issues of equity in the Chicano community.
II. Vicente Telles
As a student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in the early 2000s, Vicente “Chente” Telles first learned about the traditional New Mexican Santero art in a Chicano Studies class. Santeros are known for their creative wood carvings of religious figures, an artistic tradition that originated in colonial New Mexico. Telles left the university after a few years of study to pursue a job opportunity in Los Angeles.
In L. A., Telles worked in metal wall art fabrication design and production. His forty-hour-a-week job left him ample time to pursue the study of art–with a particular emphasis in the making of carved Santos and Retablo art. Filled with curiosity, Telles searched for books describing how the Santeros carved their wood pieces and how they painted Rebablos. He visited local bookstores in Southern California with the sole intent of finding details about these unique New Mexican art forms.
During Telles’s six years in Los Angeles, he began to teach himself the art of painting Retablos using wood or masonite boards as well as carving three-dimensional statues. He completed his first painting, a Retablo piece in 2006 which he described as a folk realist painting. When Telles moved back to New Mexico, he took some of his work to the Spanish Market and the Contemporary Art Market. As a non-Indigenous artist, he did not qualify for the popular Indian Market of Santa Fe.
Telles’s creative paintings in the Presa House exhibit are impressive. For the Presa House show, Telles chose to paint both conceptual and realistic renderings. He acknowledged that many of his works, in color and style, demonstrate Vincent Van Gough’s influence. One painting features a jug of water filled with Van Gough-style sunflowers. Telles noted that there is tragedy associated with the imagery. The painting represents the jugs of water people left for migrants crossing the deserts of Northern Mexico into the United States. Telles heard many stories of these jugs of water, which often saved lives. The jugs, however, were often found kicked over and punctured so as to deprive an immigrant of water.
III. Brandon Maldonado
Brandon Maldonado, like Telles, grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Primarily a self-taught artist, Maldonado’s initial observations of Latino art
came about in his early teens when he began to notice the graffiti art of his barrio community. He attended the College of Santa Fe where his
Humanities studies led him to conclude that “art merely serves to express an idea.” He strongly believes that philosophy and religion have been
especially influential in what is painted and how and why it is painted. New Mexican artist Brandon Maldonado.
Maldonado’s paintings at Presa House draw the visitor in. His “Mona Lisa Mexicana” is a modern version of a woman with a mystifying smile. Her deep brown skin, large brown eyes, colorful Mexican clothing, and cubist facial features invite inquiry. Who is she? Likewise, his “Girl of the Sun,” with a bright-red thick necklace and a flowery shaw, suggests the way Picasso might have painted her.
Maldonado acknowledged a fascination with the history and culture of New Mexico along with ”its living and historical ties to the story of Mexico and its Mestizo legacy.” Regarding his art, he stated: “I feel like a cook in the kitchen throwing ingredients in the gumbo. A dash of Picasso-esque cubism sprinkled atop traditional New Mexican retablo folk-art aesthetics and a hefty helping of the hypnotic repetitious patterning of celebrated outside artist Martin Ramirez.”
Presa House Gallery owners, Esparza and Luna, have brought these exciting Chicano artists to San Antonio. Our San Antonio art scene is richer and
more diverse as a result.
Copyright 2022 by Ricardo Romo. All photos courtesy of the author.