No Virgins, No Velvet

An MFAH show and a crop of new galleries are redefining what Latino art is supposed to look like

In 1975, Espada followed his family to South Texas, where his artistic vision took shape. Enrolling in the Glassell School of Art, he discovered abstract expressionism -- an art movement normally associated with the West -- and grappled with how to remain true to his Latin American background. He was unimpressed with the Latino art around him. "What you saw…were people doing the hearts and the Virgins," he says. "I didn't care about doing any of that."

But soon Espada met Glassell professor Philip Renteria, a Laredo-born painter and important role model. Renteria's meditative "Mind Grid Paintings" weren't thought of as Latino art, but had recently become the first works by a local, Latino painter to be collected by the MFAH. And artistically, Espada found influence through the work of Dorothy Hood, who had returned from Mexico. "The color and the space, that was what I was excited and inspired by" in her paintings, he says. "The technique -- that was what really defined the next stage in my career…I found answers to my visual questions, so to speak."

Promoted by Hood and her friends, Espada assembled his first major portfolio. He used Japanese brushes to streak rice paper with black oil paint, giving his paintings the feel of Asian calligraphy. The references to North American painters such as Pollock also appeared in the paintings' colorful unpredictability. Yet the inspiration for the work came from Puerto Rico's vibrant music and tropical foliage. The paintings seemed somehow emblematic of the subcontinent's energy and chaos.

After Espada lost his longtime painting studio on White 
Oak, he moved into a former liquor store on Houston 
Avenue, where he has had trouble working.
Daniel Kramer
After Espada lost his longtime painting studio on White Oak, he moved into a former liquor store on Houston Avenue, where he has had trouble working.
Works such as Espada's Broken Cage evoke 
the fusions and syncopations of Latin jazz.
Daniel Kramer
Works such as Espada's Broken Cage evoke the fusions and syncopations of Latin jazz.

Espada's first show was controversial, especially among Latinos. "It was very daring for him to take on the language of abstraction from the very beginning," says Mari Carmen Ramirez, curator of Latin American art at the MFAH. "Latino artists could not do abstraction. If you did, it was like you were selling your soul."

In fact, few Latinos have patronized Espada. Jesus Cantu Medel, the director of the Museo Guadalupe Aztlan, holds a common view of his work. Sitting behind a painting depicting Mayan designs on an astronaut, he says he prefers art in the vein of the Movimiento's "neoindigenism," a marriage of the indigenous and the contemporary.

Medel looks like an aging grassroots radical, someone who has taken to heart the Movimiento's good intentions; he wears a white Panama shirt and a ponytail, and his gallery is housed in a room of the downtown office of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "Interest in neoindiginism is going to happen through the murals," he says. "Have you seen the mural at Long Middle School? The whole focus is the Goddess of Corn. Beautiful mural."


Espada's paintings, lacking some of the more conventional references to Latino culture found in the work of his contemporaries, caught on most strongly among highly educated, mostly Anglo patrons, who were interested in the uniqueness of the work in the context of global contemporary art movements. The MFAH loved him. In the wake of the Hispanic artists show, Alison de Lima Greene, then an MFAH assistant curator, picked out two of his paintings, making him the second Houstonian Latino artist the museum had collected.

"There is a moment in life when everything folds together," Espada says. "I didn't have any control of that. All I knew was I was doing the right thing."

In Houston, Espada paintings were soon flying off the walls. The McMurtrey Gallery sold them to globe-trotting financiers and law firms such as Fulbright & Jaworski. The art was such a commodity that one stockbroker who lost his money used his Espada collection to pay his bankruptcy attorney.

But even Espada's highbrow clients were impressionable. And as memory of the MFAH's Hispanic show faded, so did Espada's celebrity. Through the 1990s, Latin American art exhibitions at the museum focused almost entirely on a handful of famous artists from the Mexican Renaissance -- painters who had little relation to his work. Shows on Kahlo (1993), Siquieros (1997) and Rivera (1999), though spectacular, reinforced a cramped perception of Latin American art as something out of the movie Like Water for Chocolate -- a figurative tradition enamored of revolution, roses and vaqueros.

The shows provided scant support for local Latino artists. "They were really focused on individual personalities and their precise work; they weren't giving you an overview of the culture or market per se," explains art consultant Sally Reynolds. "…[F]rom those exhibitions, I don't think people are going to jump out and try to embrace the contemporary artists. Some do, but I don't think they are tantalized in the same way as from exhibits like the one in 1987."

At least partially as a result of the shows, Espada's gallery sales wilted. To support himself, he landed a prestigious, one-year artist-in-residence position in 1995 at the MFAH, teaching children and producing a large mural. But his works continued to sell poorly, and his next job at the MFAH was as a laborer responsible for setting up and taking down exhibits. He worked there for two years, piloting mechanical dollies, before he was fired over an argument with his boss. A building contractor friend later gave him the job installing countertops. But it was tough work -- overly tough for Espada, who at 53 is too old for hard labor. He injured his back last month and briefly stopped working.

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