Arte Para La Jente (Art for the People) is Chicana artist Margaret Gracia’s first retrospective exhibition. At 70 years of age, this exhibition for Garcia is a life dream come true. The selection of artwork exhibiting at the Museum of Ventura County in California is a 37 year span in travel from 1985 to 2022 (November 22, 2021-May 22, 2022).  This body of work is a milestone in her career as a dedicated community artist. Collector Cheech Marin holds one of the largest collections of Garcia’s work.
In this collection of work, Garcia draws from her immediate surroundings as inspiration. Her portraits are of close friends with whom she has developed strong bonds. Garcia’s landscapes are her cartographies that hold dear memories of her community and places she sought to experience.
Garcia is known for her bright color palette and her course textured style of painting. She paints immediate moments engraved in her memory and immortalized on canvas. Without any doubt, Garcia is our Van Gogh of our times. She gives color to scenes that otherwise could be pale and carry a monotonous and gloomy expression.
The colors used by Garcia are close to those used by many Latin American artisans especially Mexican. Of Mexican heritage, Garcia spins the use of color on beautiful artisan craftwork onto her expressive colorful canvases. For scholar Mary Karen Davalos professor of Chicano and Latino Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, “Margaret Garcia has developed her own color theory […]. Her color theory requires an understanding of high key color radiant and how the luminous and lustrous qualities work together.”
With bright pulsing colors, Garcia compensates life. She searches for equilibrium between the banal, the invisible and the privilege to experience life but once in a lifetime. Her painting process carries many moments of meditation between the canvas, her color palette, her painted subject, her soul, mind and heart.
In her painting American Dream (2020, oil on canvas) Garcia captures a silent moment on a bright day of a paletero/fruit vendor (The ice cream man) sitting on the curve of a park walkway. He is alone with no customers to attend surrounded by a lush scene of southern California’s iconic palm trees and lime green foliage. Paleteros, fruit and street vendors (including taco stands) are commonly stationed at parks, on local community streets and throughout most of the City of Los Angeles, particularly in Latino neighborhoods. Many of the street vendors are immigrant men and women who come to the United States in pursuit of better economic opportunities. This search comes with many risks. Paleteros and other street vendors such as corn sellers (eloteros) have been victims of assault, violence and discrimination. As street workers making a living in the American Dream, they face multiple challenges. Garcia like Van Gogh has a common concern: For Van Gogh it is the peasant farmers, for Garcia it is the common worker and the common person. Both manifest in their paintings a gaze of dignity, empathy and acknowledgment for those who toil day in and day out who for the most part are hieratically categorized at the low end in modern capitalist societies where prestige is to be found at the top and hardly ever at the bottom.
In Glorious Echo Park (2020, oil on canvas), in the midst of a world pandemic, Garcia sets her painting of Echo Park Lake against the background of smooth hills with trees. The majestic sun mirrors its glory against waves strolling along the tranquil lake’s mirror-like surface. Slightly above the hills the sun streams its rays outward as a warm gesture of gentleness. Echo Park Lake is a sought out landscape by many artists. The Lake was one of Chicano Artist Carlos Almaraz favorite sites to paint. Almaraz captures in many of his fabulous Echo Park night scenes, silhouettes of downtown Los Angeles, of mystery and nightlife with sharp diagonal strokes of paint. Garcia on the contrary chooses an angle that avoids downtown; the political powerhouse of L.A. She snuffs it out. She bypasses any reference to power in the far distance unlike Almaraz. Instead, Garcia paints a promising horizon; warm, generous and hopeful during difficult times full of uncertainty. The sun’s might spans all across the skyline with comforting blues and yellow hues. It is tender and kind. Her strokes are soft, curvy, long, playful and jazzy. They resemble the mane of a lion struck by wind. Garcia like her long ago Native/Indigenous ancestors pays homage to life with this painting. Echoes of the sundance stomping the ground can be heard from far away. In this particular piece Garcia pronounces her respect for the sun as an essential living element not just for life but for inspiration and hope. Garcia does not wedge herself away from the natural elements as two separate entities. She unifies earth and humanity in a holistic circular perspective of mutual coexistence as an anti-Cartesian argument against the separation between mind and body.  Glorious Echo Park is Garcia’s love prayer for all of humanity.
Garcia’s landscapes deserve special attention, with a diverse mix of highlights and radiance they are also reminders of the disappearance of extraordinary natural beauty. The slow grinding of modernization against the environment, inspirational landscapes like Mexico’s volcanic mountain Itzaccihuatl has lost its millennial snowcap signature.. Itzaccihuatl’s mystic energy has been a fountain of inspiration for filmmakers, photographers, artists like Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo Cornado), poets, writers, and especially for Chicana muralists as an extension of self-determination. The glacier that once crowned Itzacchuitl has been declared extinct forever due to global warming.
Most of Garcia’s work is inspired by what she feels more so then what she thinks. She responds to the world with heart and soul. Her platform of motivation is la jente (the people).
In Shock and Awe (2005, oil on canvas) Garcia addresses the destruction of life by the U.S. government in the Iraq war conflict. A scenario of U.S jets bombing mosques hover in the sky. Oil wells burn merciless contaminating the horizon and the air we all breathe. Shock and Awe is her strongest political protest painting in the exhibition.
Garcia’s paintings are particular, yet her most universal work of art is Shock and Awe:
“It is one of her most dramatic works on canvas. It is a most discomforting tale of war and destruction with so much truth that it is hard to believe such an apocalyptic obliteration could be painted in color.”
Garcia is the only Chicana artist amongst many who points out the contradictions and fallacies behind the U.S invasion of Iraq. Iraq’s oil rich land was the primary excuse to wage war against the country. Her concern in the painting is the terror experienced by children, families and people during war. Mosques surrounded by fire capture the anxiety of the artist. The horror of war haunts Garcia in Shock and Awe. It is no coincidence that such horror is painted with bright colors. For Garcia we experience the world in color. Shock and Awe is the death of color that translates into the death of life.
The exhibition could not have been complete without the presence of La Virgen del Rio de Porciuncula (2001, oil on canvas). Garcia’s positions the young virgin leaning against a youthful tree painted in deep royal purple. She looks pregnant and at rest. The virgin’s green tunic carries the Mesoamerican symbolic celestial stars resembling yellow fluorescent Luciérnagas (Firefly). They are the same of those in Tonantzin Guadalupe’s tunic. A stream of water (Porciuncula River known today as the L.A River) in turquoise and green hues patiently streams on by. The trees, the stream, the leaves, the tall grass, the hill behind the virgin and the succulent flower at the forefront of the canvas all seem to be engaged in the aura of La Virgen del Rio de Porciuncula. Scholars on the history of the City of Los Angeles locate La Virgen del Rio de Porciuncula as part of the original city’s name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles di Porcuincula. The celestial map makes the virgin unique, given that there are no European Virgin Marys with quincentennial celestial maps gravitating on their mantel.
The image of Tonantzin Guadalupe for many Chicana artists is dear and spiritual. It is for Chicano artist Fernando Barragan whose main protagonist in his wall sized painting No Somos Animales is Tonantzin Guadalupe. Yet there is some Chican@ artists who critique those who do include virgins in their exhibitions. For those who do the following can be said:
“The presence of La Virgen de Guadalupe who led during the early 19th century the people’s political resistance during Mexico’s struggle for independence is essential for understanding Mexico’s history. It is the same symbol that the anti-imperialist Indigenous rebels, the Zapatistas hold as a banner along with many other icons close to their cause. Scholar Miguel Leon Portilla in Tonantzin Guadalupe: Pensamiento nahuatl y mensaje cristiano en el Nican mopohua describes this powerful indigenous icon Tonantzin Guadalupe (Tonantzin in Nahuatl language translates to our mother) as the most significant fountain of inspiration and Mexican identity.”
Arte Para la Jente reveals one of the many challenges for Chicano/Latino artists with no Chicano Museum in the city of Los Angeles. Why must Chicanas exhibit outside the walls of Los Angeles in cities like Riverside, CA in the newly built Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture or art venues like the Ventura County Museum?
Garcia’s particular artwork requires more than a theoretical color theory examination; it requires more than the traditional art liberal critique or studied through the lens of a linear art historical timeline. There are two parallels that run in Garcia’s work: what is visible and what is not. What is present but not visible in her artwork is a philosophical reflection. This reflection is a call to take into consideration the multiple categories/experiences which shape life and how they all intersect at times in harmony and other times in opposition to the will of life. Garcia’s work is a bridge between the past and the present.
Several of Garcia’s quotes are placed along the walls in the company of the artwork. Many ring with poetic resonance. One reads the following:
“Sometimes I feel like an envelope brown and unaddressed. This is an effort to fill that envelope and address it. It is a personal journey that takes place in my history, my family, my heritage, and my identity. It is a physical identity encompassed by a social identity. I look to become whole so that I may become part of the whole.”
The exhibition is made to feel at home. Comfy couches lounge around for visitors to sit and engage with the paintings from different angles. Garcia’s weathered easel sculpts the space with its presence. The collection is installed with the eye level of children in mind.
Garcia the activist, the environmentalist, the mentor, the artists and friend leads the way for Chicano representation. She’s been consistent for the past four decades giving voice to the people. Her personal narrative as well as her collective community work is essential to understand the history of Chicano art in the City of Los Angeles. Garcia does not choose what she is going to paint. Life chooses her to paint life. When asked how she represents her community, Garcia answers “By painting my community!”
Jimmy Centeno 4/2/22
In Memory of Itzaccihuatl (la mujer durmiente)
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