Roberto Chavez: Portraits
-Reporting by Eliza Newman–
Finally, Roberto Chavez’s portraits are receiving the attention they deserve. Glike Gallery, only a few miles away from the eastside barrio where the artist was born, is showing an extensive collection of his works. The show, titled “Roberto Chavez: Portraits” will run until February 22.
Inside, there’s a portrait of a daughter wearing a piggish scowl and half a dozen self-portraits of the artist looking younger and younger despite the passage of time… If Van Gogh’s signature adorned these paintings, marking their eerie blue shadows and bold brushstrokes with his renown, surely we would have seen them by now. Had the public regarded Roberto Chavez’s works as art, rather than political puzzle pieces of the Chicano-Angelino experience, this would not be the first time our gaze meets these expressive faces frozen on canvases.
Painting in a time when Pop Art and Minimalism were thought to be the artistic ideal, Chavez defies contemporary artistic conventions. Instead, he simultaneously dares to challenge and preserve the impressionistic style popularized almost a century before.
The bold swaths of color in his paintings suggest a certain artistic confidence, but it is the eyes on Chavez’s paintings that seize hold and leave a lasting impression. While it would be natural to attribute this singularly searing quality of the eyes to artistic brilliance or exceptional levels of empathy, the brief descriptions beside each painting at Glike Gallery suggest otherwise. Chavez is painting those closest to him, with loving devotion.
Beneath a painting entitled, “Family Portrait,” Chavez writes: “My family when my number two daughter, Sonna, was an infant. The dog’s name was lover.” Indeed, even a seductive nude is revealed to be an imagined likeness of one of Chavez’s friends, rather than a painting of a dancer or prostitute as viewers first imagine.
When painting others, Chavez is remarkably devoted to his subjects. He paints with immense kindness and honesty. The artist holds up a mirror, attempting to portray those who sit for him exactly as they see themselves, rather than manipulating their thoughts and emotions to serve his artistic vision.
While Chavez has painted countless portraits of friends, fellow painters, and loved ones, the subject to which he most often returns appears to be himself. Nearly half a dozen portraits of the artist hang on the walls. The paintings chronicle the life of a man who has grown more relaxed and informal over the course of his life. The earlier pieces are about what you’d expect from a young artist: dark and moody with a sense of almost counterfeit angst. Even in “Family Portrait,” Chavez paints himself with an air of self-consciousness that separates him from the rest of the family. Painting oneself as part of a group is a daunting task for any young artist seeking individuality, yet Chavez’s early work shows promise and he moves steadily past his initial discomfort. Now there is a release. His later self-portraits appear in the same joyous light with which he paints his relatives, friends and colleagues. In addition, he is willing to experiment.
One wall in the gallery features a trio of Chavez’s self-portraits—one from 1957, one from 1979, and one from 1983. The final portrait, titled, “Self Portrait with Stuffed Fish,” shows an almost unrecognizable playfulness. In the place of the darkly stylized canvases that characterize much of his early work, Chavez adopts a vivid red canvas. He further moves his signature blues and greens to his face, rather than the space around him.
Even when the artist plays, however, trying out mutations of his image and experimenting with fanciful watercolor and pencil sketches, some of Chavez’s brooding intensity and call for understanding remains. His works don’t challenge woes of materialistic consumerism, as many of his contemporaries do. Instead, they prompt observers to look at themselves and one another to discover contentment and sympathy.
At 83, Chavez continues to work and produce art from his home in Arizona. Los Angeles, however, is where his career began, and where his legacy as both an artist and an educator is most appreciated. Even if there’s no Wikipedia page breaking down his life into easily digested factoids, Chavez’s art is unmistakable, and his legacy as the so-called “Spiritual Father of Chicano Art” entirely earned.
Post Photos by Eliza Newman