THE riches of his twin heritages merge in Anthony Ortega's big, bright, bold paintings, collages, and mixed-media art works. Past and present, Mexican and European art history, folk influence and high-art training meet on his picture planes. The universal human condition and the specifics of the Mexican-American experience tug and push the viewer's eye in an ongoing dialogue just as his colors push and pull in constant colloquy.
In art school he learned perspective and color theory along with Western art history. He was influenced by the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists, the Fauves, and much 20th-century Western art.
"I learned it," he says, "but as a Chicano I had to learn my cultural heritage as well. I've studied Mexican history, anthropology, Chicano studies. All of this feeds into my work. I grew up with the Flintstones and MacDonalds, but at home we heard Spanish and ate tortillas. I see myself as bilingual and bicultural."
Looking for his cultural roots, he studied the folk art of Guatemala, Mexico, and other Latin American countries. He lays his paint down in thin, raw expressive strokes, so that the background often peaks through the paint.
The pure color and the simplification of shapes and gesture he found in folk art impressed him deeply. He began to flatten out the Western perspective he had learned in university, to simplify shape, and to experiment with the bright, clear colors of folk art using the color theory he learned in school.
This art of simplification nevertheless sought to portray the realities of Ortega's own experience and he layers his pieces with symbolism derived from his heritage. Faceless, but expressive, his men and women exude attitude and dignity.
Sometimes the scenes he paints are neighborhood hangouts and street corners, parks, or farm fields. But just as often, past and present meet in the landscape of his imagination. Thus, a Mayan pyramid hovers in the background as blue-black haired young men and women gather around a low-rider car.
The work, he says, is semi-autobiographical. But it is also about what he observes around him. Incorporating cultural symbols like the Mayan god Chac, the farm-workers' flag, the American flag, pre-Columbian jaguars and pyramids, he reaches deep into history for his symbols, those symbols that help make up who Chicanos are culturally, and that continue to inspire them.
"My work is about people and the interaction of people. I hope that through my work, [the public] will have a better understanding of Chicano culture. I've never tried to make my work threatening or intimidating. I don't see my role as hitting you over the head. I want to attract you, make you observe or look more carefully or make you try to figure out why.... That's why I leave the forms without faces: You can put yourself in that spot or maybe identify a friend or relative...."