The Pulse of Hispanic L. A.

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SOME artists leave a tidy legacy. The internationally known Chicano artist Carlos Almaraz, who died in 1989, did not. The life and art of Almaraz was a volatile, mixed-up brew of many things.

In keeping with his Latino background, his work always held a Mexican awareness of the drama of life and death. This was displayed in images that had a quality of the supernatural or the surreal; people floated, masks lurked. His life and work were intensely political: Almaraz didn't hide his displeasure with racial prejudice. He was also something of the archetypal, driven artist: He had a compulsion to create, often to the exclusion of any other consideration. Sometimes this cost him Latino friends.

Articulate, publicly gregarious and charming, Almaraz seemed to teeter between many personas. This balancing act gave his art its particular rhythm and its sultry beauty. His complex personal and creative identity led to passionate, complex art full of magic, ritual, exuberance, and enormous pain.

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By the time Almaraz died in 1989, he was a nationally recognized artist collected by major museums. His images were appropriated for international Olympic posters in 1984; he participated in group and solo shows around the world.

In 1987, when the prestigious Corcoran Gallery in Washington, mounted the first close-up look at Hispanic art ever attempted, Almaraz's work was among the most powerful presented. Almaraz said of the exhibition: "Efforts like this show only emphasize that we are viewed as `the other like a situation that needs comprehending, or fixing, or catching up with - that says it all. It feels like appeasing the peasants."

His success didn't come without struggle or bitterness. Almaraz nearly drank himself to death in the 1970s; he lost a brother to drug overdose in the rough, deprived east Los Angeles barrio where he grew up; and he struggled with the issue of his sexuality.

Originally from Mexico, Almaraz was raised in East L.A., graduated from art school in design, and was hired for a graphic art job in New York. He returned to L. A. in the mid 1960s to a burgeoning minority-rights consciousness and became actively involved in the Chicano movement. He worked with Ceasar Chavez's United Farm Workers and became a social worker in his Latino neighborhood. When he "burned out" as a social advocate, he painted full time, pouring social messages into his work.

His political paintings are large, angry works done in the raw, cartoonish style of social caricature. The works reminded viewers of social disparities: abuse of farm workers and punitive immigration laws.

One compelling canvas exhibited in L. A. in 1974 depicts a standoff between farm workers and union members. The figures are constructed from heavy, dark lines, their faces almost contorted with pent-up emotion. These quick, nervous lines became Almaraz's trademark, and the style gave these early political works the feel of a time bomb about to go off.

In the early '80s, this style evolved into a disciplined, energetic realism winning Almaraz the title of L. A.'s regional chronicler. "Echo Park," and "Burrito Stand" became icons for the mysterious city-within-a-city, culture-within-a-culture identity of L. A., capturing the diverse ethnic ethos that is so much a part of the town.

This was the period when Almaraz began his now-famous paintings and pastels of Echo Park. The park came to hold particular metaphoric significance for Almaraz: The picturesque park with its lake, arched little bridges, and knolls was a bucolic haven and a longtime geographic hub for the Chicano community. Here people picnicked and married, low-riders parked, gangs dueled, and couples kissed. In his pastels and oils of Echo Park, frenzied zigzag lines in the bright, garish colors of Mexican folk-art desig n create figures that dance or float on dark background. In this work, Echo Park is a place of incomparable beauty and mystery, a place both safe and eerie, where all the ritual and celebratory passion that are part of the Latino world view come to life.

When Almaraz turned his vision to L. A. at large, he captured perfectly the pulse of a city where so much of life takes place in cars. His car-crash paintings are some of his best and most internationally respected works. In them he expresses the energy, danger, and excitement of moving, colliding metal.

By the mid 1980s, there was another shift in both Almaraz's art and his outlook. His art went from the specific and political to the mythic. In an interview, he said, "I finally realize that all the political work didn't change anyone. You can't change the world through political art. You can use art to make yourself a better person, and if we're all better people, then the world is a better place."

From 1980 on, Almaraz's work was less violent, less angry. He studied the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and traveled to Hawaii for inspiration. Canvases from this period depict tropical forests filled with pre-Columbian figures, jaguar-men, and spotted horses about to fly. In "First Hawaiians," a lush paradise is inhabited by elegant nudes whose features and body types combine Indian, Hispanic, Oriental, and Greek archtypes.

There is no effort in these works to push a point of view, just a desire to capture some invented and heroic realm. As Almaraz put it then, "I found the beauty of the barrio, of the Mexican people, the beauty of the human form, and mostly of our common creative wellspring. I suddenly didn't feel like I had to pitch anything or please anyone. I knew what I knew and I painted from there."

In his final works, Almaraz swung again from the mythic to the common. In many of these moody interiors of furniture and bric-a-brac, Almaraz would depict a recurring dark figure - the personification of death or fate - lurking in fanciful scenes, waiting in backgrounds as if to collect unknown dues.

But Almaraz seems to have made peace with himself before he died. As he said, "I have always remained the most intimately involved in making imagery: For me the act of creating is the real universal and self-transforming experience. That impulse will persist long after other petty struggles end."

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