Alibi V.25 No.18 • May 5-11, 2016 

Culture Shock

More Than White Men on Horses

El Retrato Nuevomexicano Ahora explores the many contexts of portraiture

Begin That Beguine
Begin That Beguine
Max-Carlos Martinez

In the heart of the National Hispanic Cultural Center's art museum, an expansive collection of portraiture by New Mexican artists has expanded its tenure beyond the visit of the corresponding exhibit from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery that gave rise to it and is taking on a life of its own. The well received traveling exhibit has come and gone from the NHCC. Preparing for the visit though, the center's Visual Arts Program Director, Dr. Tey Marianna Nunn, was concerned that most of the artists in the Smithsonian's exhibit “were East Coast artists. I was worried that we [in New Mexico] may not connect.” So she curated her own corresponding show: El Retrato Nuevomexicano Ahora or New Mexican Portraiture Now, featuring the work of 11 artists from our state.

“We wanted to show Latino portraiture and dispel the stereotypes … because you usually think of portraiture [as] white men on horses,” Nunn explained. The show, which will now run through June 12, showcases the many shapes that portraiture can take as artists explore identity, history and culture. The roughly 3,000-square foot space of the community gallery is currently highlighting the work of Arturo Olivas, Cecilia Portal, Derrick Montez, Edward Gonzales, Gene Ortega, Jocelyn Lorena Salaz, Lydia Gallegos, María Dolores Gonzales, Max-Carlos Martinez, Miguel Gandert and Oscar Lozoya. Just as problematic as the assumption that portraiture is always white men on horses is the assumption of who and what Hispanic artists should accentuate in their portraiture work. Max-Carlos Martinez confronts that notion immediately, greeting visitors to the exhibit with his portrait of George Washington (on a horse) in all of its pop art glory. As he told Nunn, “Why should I always have to paint Cesar Chavez?”

Commemorative Portrait of Patrocinio Barela
Commemorative Portrait of Patrocinio Barela
Edward Gonzales

The people these 11 artists have chosen to represent in their work are vast and beautiful. “It really interested me what Nuevo Mexicano artists were doing, who they were recording and why,” Nunn noted. Subjects include other artists, family members, community members, historical figures and of course, a bevy of self-portraits, too, because as Derrick Montez expressed in a panel discussion, “Sometimes I just don't have a model, but I have to paint.” Lydia Gallegos chose to document with a camera the people—her neighbors, friends, co-workers and acquaintances—of her South Valley community in the `70s. “A lot of work in the show is the artists recognizing … and elevating everyday people,” Nunn said, it's important that “people can come and see themselves” reflected in El Retrato Nuevomexicano Ahora.

Guadalupana del Alma, New Mexico
Guadalupana del Alma, New Mexico
Miguel Gandert

Layered within the disparate mediums and subjects here are more than human forms—which are boundlessly interesting on that account alone—but also memories, experiences and records of people and places. In the process of curating the show, leading gallery tours and moderating artist panels, Nunn said that she “realized portraits were much more complicated” than she previously thought. During the many public discussions of the works, the next of which is an artist panel with Max-Carlos Martinez and María Dolores Gonzales on May 15 at 2pm, questions like “Are you typecast? Do you consider yourself a 'Latino artist' or an artist?” and “Do you feel recognized?” came up as well as how to capture a vibrant, multi-dimensional, living individual in a static medium.

However they are arranged and whatever they depict, there is an innate power in addressing portraiture as a non-elite art form. It's empowering as a visitor and a wellspring of inspiration even for the artists themselves. As Lydia Gallegos, now in her 90's, made her way around the exhibit with her granddaughter in tow, she paused to regard her own work. “These look really good,” she told Nunn, “Maybe I should get another camera.” I had a similar feeling as I stood in the center of the community gallery. “It became so popular,” Nunn explained, “[because] it is accessible and intimate.” Take this opportunity to pluck your own inspiration from the community of artists all around you by visiting this exhibit during its special extension into the summer months.