The Pulse of Hispanic L. A.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.