¡Arte Caliente! at the National Hispanic Cultural Center
By Steven Robert Allen
Wouldn't it be nice to have the spare cash to really collect art? Wherever you happened to be, if you saw a piece of art that yanked your chain, you could just whip out the plastic and buy it on the spot. Joe A. Diaz has just such a luxury. The San Antonio-based businessman might not be able to buy every piece of art he's ever wanted, but for the last decade and a half he's had the resources to develop an astonishing art collection mainly consisting of masterpieces of Chicano art from the Southwest.
Since the late '80s, he has sought out artists that move him and collected their work in-depth. An exhibit of art from Diaz' collection is currently running at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. It's a varied and entertaining show.
On entering ¡Arte Caliente!, the first piece you're most likely to confront is Connie Arismendi's "The Tree of My Life." Set into its own black-walled altar-like space, a steel tree rises up from a circle of green stones, its branches supporting a couple dozen white candles. On the wax, Arismendi has penciled visages of all different kinds of people—perhaps family members, perhaps friends, perhaps the dead, perhaps all three. It's a thoughtful, quiet, serene piece that contrasts nicely with the voluptuous high-volume intensity of the rest of the show.
Luis Jiménez is a case in point. The garish eroticism of the New Mexican resident's work is already familiar to most art-loving Albuquerqueans. Ladies with short skirts and distorted, leering faces lean against hot rods or juke boxes. Shirtless, tattooed bad boys wander through blighted cities. Urban scenes like these mesh seamlessly with other Jiménez prints depicting Mexicans illegally crossing the Rio Grande and other images that delve into ancient American myth. In a variation on his famous "Southwest Pieta," for example, "Air, Earth, Fire and Water" depicts an Indian god attempting to resuscitate a nude woman partially wrapped in a blanket of flames while a rattlesnake slithers around her head.
¡Arte Caliente! also includes several lush large-scale portraits by San Antonio artist César Martínez depicting Mexican Americans in vintage clothes from the mid-20th century. Some are vaguely humorous, like "The White Dwarf," which shows a little white-haired man posing in green-tinted shades. Others have an almost mystical quality, such as "The Cat," which portrays a yellow-hued gent standing on the grassy banks of a wide, smooth body of water while the impossibly huge tail of a cat curls over his left shoulder. The man's eyes look down and to his left, possibly sensing but not seeing the tail, as if he's struggling just as much as we are to make sense of his situation.
The entire middle room of the exhibit is mostly filled up with John Hernandez' blindingly colored toy-like creations. They look like something you'd want to play with, but, at the same time, they appear too delicate to touch. The biggest Hernandez piece in the show, "Jerry's Kids," is mounted directly on the wall over a pink splattering of paint. The work depicts a kind of one-eyed insectoid cartoon creature with a neck composed of fire (some of the flames are covered with polka dots). A severed foot floats at the bottom of the work.
Constructed largely from painted slabs of wood, pinned at different layers from the wall, to lend a sense of depth, the creature's body is made of other creatures, doggy faces, bugs and bizarre mutant rodents. It's strange and disturbing, like so much of Hernandez' work—the kind of thing that might look appropriate mounted in a child's bedroom but that would inevitably give the kid nightmares.
¡Arte Caliente! is a large, diverse show that deserves your attention. If you enjoy it the first time around, you might want to stop back at the end of the year when the center plans to rotate in some other pieces from Diaz' collection that it didn't have space to display.
¡Arte Caliente!, selections from the Joe A. Diaz Collection, runs through Feb. 26 at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. 246-2261 or visit nhccnm.org.
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