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Roberto Chavez
Vincent Price Art Museum, East Los Angeles College, East Los Angeles
Preview by Kathy Zimmerer

Roberto Chavez, "The Path to Knowledge and the False University," 1974 (whitewashed 1979), mural at East L.A. College

Continuing through December 6, 2014

This long overdue retrospective of pioneering Chicano artist, Roberto Chavez, highlights his magnificent mural "The Path to Knowledge and the False University" (1974) (whitewashed by the East LA College President for political reasons in 1979), plus edgy, lush portraits, still lifes, political and genre scenes, which have been an inspiration to many Los Angeles Chicano artists. Concentrating on the work he created in the sixties and seventies through 1980, when he was a faculty member at East Los Angeles College, this exhibit is an eye opening look at an artist who easily incorporated ancient Mexican and colonial imagery, channeled European painting, especially cubism and the expressionist tendencies of Van Gogh, and then mixed in his unique California vision to create memorable and always dynamic paintings.

As a faculty member Chavez co-founded the Chicano studies department in 1968 and was chair of the Art Department. He either taught, exhibited with, or was a mentor to the leading lights of the Chicano movement in the sixties and seventies, including Gilbert "Magu" Lujan, John Valadez, Leo Limon, Carlos Almaraz, Gronk, Willie Herron, Margaret Garcia, Ofelia Esparza and the photographer Oscar Castillo.

Showcasing the 200 by 30-foot mural "The Path to Knowledge...", this entire exhibit explores the incredible complexities and layers of his imagery.  As mentioned by Sybil Venegas in her excellent essay on the mural, it reads like an ancient Mesoamerican codex with symbols abounding, including the Aztec pyramids and a Mexican Madonna, all set in an imaginary landscape replete with surrealist imagery and fluidity. As Venegas writes, Chavez called his style "Mexican Baroque" because of the hybrid nature of his symbols and art.  

His marvelous series of self-portraits give insight into this highly complex, intellectual painter who was a catalyst for the Southern California Chicano art movement. “Self-Portrait with Tando” (1957) is a luminous study in sepia with a flash of white from his shirt. The young Chavez directly confronts the viewer with a challenging stare. His "Self-Portrait in Blue" (1963) is similarly defiant and dynamic with strong, angular modeling and his face filling up the frame completely. The composition is drenched in a deep royal blue. "Self-Portrait with Beard"(1979) casts a golden light as colors range from a glowing yellow on the bridge of his nose to the deep chestnut of his hair. The strong linear brushwork combined with the deep colors reinforce the steady gaze.

These self-portraits beautifully reveal his immense skills and sensitivity in portraiture, which is also evident in an early lyrical painting of his brother, "The Artist's Brother, Raul" (1959), which deftly pays homage to Van Gogh. His portrait of a young African American girl, "Jefferson High Student" (1968), displays psychological insight. Another portrait of "Anna" (1971) depicts a world weary, yet elegant woman. "The Artist's Mother" (1970) is a superb study of care-worn beauty. His mother sits framed against her kitchen shelves and stove; she has an air of wisdom and inherent grace.  

Also noteworthy are exuberant still-lifes, which are full of brilliant color and animation, and a series of strong, politically charged paintings ranging from "Zapata Full" (1963) to "Incident in El Salvador" (1993).

As a seminal icon of the Chicano art movement, Chavez receives his due in this thoughtful and illuminating survey. His expressionist paintings bristle with life and color, and brilliantly capture both beauty and pathos.

Published courtesy of ArtSceneCal ©2014

Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College

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