No Virgins, No Velvet

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

Walking across the cement floor, Espada grabs a dusty photo album. He lays it underneath a bare fluorescent bulb and points to shots of himself wearing a skinny silver tie at a gallery opening, lounging with a former girlfriend in his old studio and watching his art dealer carry off tall canvases.

He says he had fun over the years. "I did. God Almighty I did. Because working on something, and then all of a sudden being able to be doing it, it's great. Being accepted…" He trails off into thought and then concludes: "It doesn't happen all the time, the equation."

Espada is now reassembling the variables, trying to plug them back into a formula for a comeback. His art recently went on exhibit at the Plus Gallery in Colorado. He's working to sign a lease on a building down the block, with plenty of light from storefront windows, where he knows he can paint again. And he says Ramirez likes the newest direction in his art, which involves painting on rice paper using strings of beads.

But he's quick to say he paints for himself alone, and as proof, his poverty is convincing. He thinks young Latino artists need to make the same commitment. "Create for yourself," he says. "The discovery will come on its own. It will show up by itself, when you are true to yourself. Really, it's the only way that you gain the seriousness that you really need at the end."

Espada's wisdom is sounding hopelessly idealistic. Then his cell phone rings. A Cuban-American restaurateur wants to look at his paintings. Peter Garcia, the owner of El Meson, walks in the door a few minutes later, wearing long hair and pinstriped linen pants. He steps up to a lively canvas, where the poor light does little to dampen his enthusiasm. "This is in-your-face," he says, and actually starts dancing a salsa step while looking at it. "It's like the conga. I can hear the music."

The two men walk outside, down the sidewalk of Houston Avenue to another building, owned by Espada's friend, where most of his paintings are stored. They crack beers and go to work sifting through them. But soon Espada's back starts to hurt. He lights a cigarette and sits down. He asks Garcia fussily, but without irritation, to handle the canvases carefully. He's having fun.

Garcia hoists out giant paintings from stacks against a wall and gingerly sets them on display. He tries turning some sideways and upside down. A train honks and chugs by a few feet beyond the window, its boxcars flashing almost the same color found on Espada's Isolated Yellow. Garcia drags on a cigarette and paces.

He approaches Espada and stands gazing at a canvas across the room. "Okay, this one," he says. A quick negotiation ensues in Spanish, and the men shake. Garcia's pocket bulges with cash. But why this painting?

He laughs. Walking up to the canvas, a teeming jumble of gestures in yellow and blue, he crouches and levels with Espada. "Here's the mouth, nose, eyeball, cheekbone…then there's this other thing, it's language, I think. You have this whole story… and that could look like an old Spanish galleon…and this looks like smoke…and this is a Rosetta stone…everything is floating. All of a sudden, it's like this is a fish. This is a fish!"

"Art people," Espada says. "Boy, I tell you."

But Garcia has happened upon one reason why Espada's work is brilliant, and why it sets an important example for Houston's new generation of Latino artists. It speaks slightly differently to everyone, evoking powerful emotions, yet breaking down titles and labels.

Garcia wants to know what his new painting is called.

"Heaven and Earth," Espada says. "That's it."

Garcia turns it around. "But it says Blue Mural."

Espada isn't troubled. He takes another drag on his cigarette. "We'll change it," he says.

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