By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
"Oh, my Lord!" he said. "Excuse me. Could you give me five minutes?"
Moments later, Kalil stepped inside and eyed Espada's work. After she finished, Espada followed her out to the curb. She was in search of the best artists in Houston for the 1986 museum show "Fresh Paint" and had been tight-lipped on her studio visits. She climbed into her car and started the engine. "Don't worry," she told the nervous Puerto Rican transplant before she drove off, "you're in the show."
The exhibit launched a career for Espada that has been as volatile as his paintings. The large canvases -- often intertwined with jungles of black lines and bold swaths of color -- evoke the fusions and abstract syncopations of Latin jazz; they reach across borders, to both the wild, Cuban postsurrealist Winfredo Lam, for example, and the North American guru of abstract expressionism, Jackson Pollock. Espada abandoned his dog traps and picked up his paintbrushes full-time.
A year later, the MFAH chose him for its seminal exhibit "Hispanic Artists in the United States." At a time when many critics thought of Hispanic art as all politics and no substance, it was a controversial show -- the first of its kind for a major U.S. museum -- and an instant hit. The work included sultry, life-sized, crayon cutouts of Chicanos dancing in a honky-tonk, paintings depicting red cactus fruits morphing into hearts, and artist Gilbert Luján's Our Family Car, a real-life low-rider with flaming chili peppers painted on the front. The show traveled to New York, Los Angles and Miami. Espada remembers opening the Washington, D.C., show right next to the White House. "It was the biggest thing for me," he says. "There I was in 1987, on a red carpet, shaking hands with dignitaries."
The story of what happened next is, in many ways, the story of Latino art in Houston. Espada is still considered the most successful Latino artist in town. But years ago, his work mostly stopped selling. He pays his bills these days by installing cement countertops at sweltering construction sites. In a city that is nearly 40 percent Hispanic, Latino art has been almost invisible -- either blending into the mainstream or languishing in an artistic ghetto.
But the boundaries of Houston's cultural barrios are stretching. This summer, the MFAH opened "Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America." The exhibit, which shows work created abroad in nine countries, has been called the most important event for Latin American art in the history of the United States. A New York Times critic wrote: "If I could travel to just one American museum show this summer, this would be it." The show, along with a new, unprecedented commitment to Latin American and Latino art by the MFAH and a crop of new galleries, is redefining what Latin art is supposed to look like. And in the process, it may kindle an enduring Latino art scene in Houston and finally put artists such as Espada back on the map.
Long before anyone could view Latino art in Houston -- let alone drink frozen margaritas or listen to rock en español -- Anglo Houston artists were looking south. In fact, Mexico became a stronger reference point for some Houstonians than the art capitals of the West.
In the early 1940s, Dorothy Hood, a fetching young redhead, was invited by the successful painter Roberto Mata to live in his New York apartment. She declined, telling him: "I want to do it on my own." Moving to Mexico City instead, she stayed for 20 years and befriended a who's who of the Mexican Renaissance, including Jose Clemente Orozco, Rufino Tamayo and Frida Kahlo. Her paintings borrowed strongly from Mexican surrealism, but also diverged into abstraction.
"Mexico as a country changed my life," wrote Hood, whose work was widely collected. "Its primal force was everywhere to be lived."
Despite the success of Mexican-influenced Anglo painters, most of Houston's Latino artists remained overlooked. The national Chicano art movement of the 1960s, El Movimiento, used traditional images such as bleeding hearts and indigenous religious icons, common in the work of famous Mexican muralists, to address contemporary U.S. racial and political issues. In Houston's East End, Leo Tanguma painted a mural in this style on a wall of the Continental Can Company. It was one of the best creations by a local Latino artist from the era, but Tanguma was unable to secure patrons, and it was his only significant work.
Tanguma's creativity helped other Latino artists gain more exposure, but many working artists had yet to arrive. In the early 1970s, Espada studied in Puerto Rico under Rolando Lopez Dirube -- an eccentric, deaf painter and sculptor prone to wade the San Juan Bay in search of cast-off materials for his art. Latin American culture infused Dirube's work; Espada remembers lying on the floor of his studio, Christlike, so Dirube could proportion a giant cross for the local Catholic church. (He later hauled it part of the way to the church on his back.) But Dirube was by no means a champion of what would be considered traditional Latin American themes: A student of modernist painters such as the German-American Max Beckmann, he produced work that was attuned to global art movements.
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.
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.
Adding to the painter's woes, the neighborhood around his White Oak studio has morphed from a significantly Hispanic, low-income barrio 20 years ago into a hotbed of gentrification. When the rent went up this spring, he couldn't afford it. He's now between studios and is scarcely painting. He lives in a windowless former liquor store on Houston Avenue, where a single bottle of Kahlúa sits on a shelf near an old Morales Latin Dance Party record.
With good cause to be bitter, Espada nonetheless blames himself for his sales slump. Dance has been an important influence in his work, but he quit the hobby in the 1990s because of health problems. And in 2001, his close friend New York artist Mark Lombardi committed suicide. Espada's work became more minimalist. It feels reflective and less youthful and unruly. Driving his red pickup down Allen Parkway recently, he seems to be grappling with how to connect his work to his life's readjusted reality. "I've got to find that special art," he says, "reactivate my talent, my uniqueness, my visuality."
Houston's Latino arts scene has been similarly down and out. Besides Espada, most gallery owners are hard-pressed to name even one well-known local Latino painter. And they're stumped as to why. Spotty interest from the MFAH is hardly a sufficient explanation. Cities such as Miami, Los Angeles and even San Antonio are hotbeds for Latino artists, despite lack of supportive major museums in some cases. And the Houston area has produced a respectable share of nationally known artists who aren't Latino, such as the Art Guys, Manual and, of course, Robert Rauschenberg.
Much of Houston's shortfall is to be blamed on the city's demographics, says University of Houston Latin American art professor Rex Koontz. Compared to Latinos in San Antonio and Los Angeles, who have lived in those cities for generations, most of Houston's Hispanics arrived more recently. Many come from rural areas in Texas such as the Rio Grande Valley. Unlike the wealthy Cubans who settled in Miami, they tend to be low-income and uneducated. "They are more recent immigrants, who don't necessarily come from cultures that have connections with contemporary art," Koontz says. "All of that has to wind its way through the system."
At a recent exhibit for young Latino artists at the east side's Talento Bilingue cultural center, for example, a bohemian Hispanic teenager is attracted to a Kahlo-like painting of a woman next to a rose. "I love this one so much," she says to a friend, "but my dad would be like, 'Are you hungry?' "
Latino teenagers would have picked up on visual art more quickly if Houston took arts education seriously, says MFAH director Peter Marzio. "You have to realize, first of all, that in the city of Houston, you cannot get a master's degree in art history," he says. "It is also possible to go through the entire Texas educational system and never once take a visual arts course, from prekindergarten to post-Ph.D."
Given the obstacles to success in Houston, Espada might have found more enduring patronage elsewhere. Other painters featured in the MFAH's Hispanic show benefited from moving away: Kingsville-born painter Carmen Lomas Garza relocated to San Francisco, where her paintings of tamale-making parties and other Texas scenes sell well. And the peripatetic Roberto Juarez bounced from his hometown of Chicago to Rome and New York, where he receives wide play in the cities' galleries.
Yet despite Houston's shortcomings as a destination for Latin artists, the flow of creative energy is shifting. Houston is becoming a trans-American crossroads -- and no longer just for oil, shrimp and the clothing section of Wal-Mart.
In the Arte Las Américas Gallery, which occupies an old brick house, the air conditioner fights a losing battle. Owner Jorge Luis Jiménez is drenched in sweat, probably due in part to shock. More than 200 drink-swilling visitors have squeezed into the little-known art space, and hundreds more are lined up down Richmond Avenue. His new exhibit, "ConsulARTE," is an unexpected hit.
Part of the show's draw comes from its suspense. Diplomats representing 25 countries mingle with artists and wild-haired bohemians, while judges scrutinize an international collection of paintings and prepare to vote for a winning nation.
A Colombian diplomat pats the drenched Jiménez on the shoulder. "This is the first time that anybody related to art really paid much attention to give us real support, promoting our artists, promoting our cultural expressions and values," says Hernan Arizmendi, the country's consulate general. "So Jorge Jiménez is maybe like the Cristóbal Colón of Houston art."
At a minimum, the event is a vindication for Jiménez. He opened his gallery in October 2003, selling a 50-50 mix of works from emerging Latin American and local Latino artists. "We are just starting to get off the ground," he says, "and the reason for that is because this new generation of Hispanic professionals is making it happen."
White-collar Latinos show up in droves. Santana Gonzalez, who works for the Global Gas division of ChevronTexaco, talks with Mexican painter Magdiel Perez. He's looking for ways to connect culturally with Latin America, both for personal reasons and to bolster the company's image. "If we do business with a place, we are interested not only in our own education," he says, "but also in providing cultural opportunities for people within that country."
Houston's economic and political ties to Latin America are clearly on the rise -- a good sign for Latin art. Thanks to the oil industry and the Port of Houston, the Hispanic population is growing wealthier and more cosmopolitan; many local leaders say Latino culture is like a keg of gunpowder waiting for a revolution.
And a few blocks down Richmond is a building devoted to making sparks.
Almost within sight of Arte Las Américas sits the scintillating Sicardi Gallery, Houston's first and best Latin American art dealer. María Inés Sicardi founded the gallery in 1994 with a focus on painters from her native Argentina but soon began showing blue-chip artists from across the subcontinent. Based on strong sales, she moved the gallery in 2001 from a house into a much larger, modernist building that feels like an annex of the MFAH.
And, in fact, in many ways it is. Last month the gallery displayed the kinetic art of Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez, which was also on prominent display at the MFAH's "Inverted Utopias" show. A few years ago, such cooperation would have been impossible. But now, museum-related shows are Sicardi's bread and butter and a valuable privilege of Houston galleries.
In 2001, the MFAH became the first major metropolitan museum in the nation to create a department dedicated exclusively to Latin American and Latino art. As a result, the museum has dramatically surpassed its cramped, 1990s-era fixation on the Mexican Renaissance. It now regularly exhibits contemporary art from across Latin America with a frequency and level of excellence that far outstrip its size.
The new direction is a huge coup for the local Latin American arts scene. "Houston is going to become the center for Latin American art in the United States because of all the possibilities and the commitment of the museum," Sicardi says. "I think this is going to be something very big in ten years."
In addition to boosting interest in Latin American art, the exhibits are providing a sophisticated community for local Latino artists. Espada, for example, switched in 2000 from exhibiting his work at the mainstream McMurtrey Gallery to being represented by Sicardi. "I felt like it was time to do something else," he says. "And I felt like being surrounded by people I could speak the language with, it was a good thing. I could see where they are coming from in their images. I mean, I didn't feel out of place."
And for younger artists, the cultural infusion is powerful education. After the MFAH's 2002 Gego show, many students at the Glassell School of Art mimicked her wiry, geometric designs, says Glassell director Joe Havel. He estimates at least 50 percent of Glassell's young students are Latino, and says the school employs an increasing number of programs and professors with ties to Latin American and Latino art.
The museum's Latin American program is likely to make the largest educational impact at the college and graduate levels, precisely where arts education in Houston is lacking. The new department includes the ambitious International Center for the Arts of the Americas, a research body that hopes to become the premier resource in the nation for collecting, translating and disseminating texts in Latin American art.
UH professor Koontz hopes the department will be a boon to his university, where last year's course in Latin American art filled to capacity almost as soon as it opened for registration. "We are going to get people who are more and more interested in strengthening those relationships," he says, "and that is what interests us with Mari Carmen's projects: how much synergy can be developed there."
Ramirez wants the exhibits to expose Texans to a version of Latin American art that involves more than Mexico. "What we are trying to do is really show the vastness of the territory," she says, "to introduce even our Mexican population to these cultural and artistic traditions that are really so much a part of who they are and what they are about, even if they are not aware of it."
The same mission motivates Armando Palacios, the founder of Houston's newest Latin American cultural institution: the New World Museum. Born in the Rio Grande Valley, Palacios wears an orange sweater that perfectly matches the outside walls of his orange gallery. He inaugurated the space in March 2004, with a fiesta featuring art, music and a taco truck. Jack Moriniere leads the Maecenas, a group of 40 art patrons dedicated to purchasing Latin American and Latino works for the MFAH, the first group of its kind anywhere. "One of the things that has inspired me more than anything else about what the MFAH is doing is the educational aspect," he says. " [W]e are going to have, in Houston, the center for Latin American art in the United States. So that's why I got involved in it."
But the flowering interest in Latin art in Houston also poses a major problem: Many younger Latino artists don't want their work to be thought of as Latino.
Espada is a father to these young artists. Or maybe more like a mischievous older brother. His abandonment, along with Renteria's, of the overt Latino themes of the Movimiento cleared the way for younger Latino artists, such as sculptor Jason Villegas, who consciously distance their art from their ethnicity.
Villegas recently made a Christ figure out of felt for the Plush Gallery in Dallas. His only foray into "ethnic art," it was meant to poke fun at what he considers Latinos' artistic obsession with cross imagery. "Sometimes I make work that is trying to comment about people still mowing over these ideas of race and who's who and what's what," he says. "I think things would go much smoother with a human approach."
MFAH curator Ramirez says artists such as Villegas are typical. "I think a lot of the younger Latinos, whose parents were part of the Movimiento, also don't want to be identified with the Movimiento," she says. "They want to be American. They want to be considered part of American culture."
In fact, many gallery owners now agree the terms "Latino" and "Latin American" are stifling, and some even refuse to use them. "It's a really big problem," says Apama Mackey, whose Mackey Gallery devotes roughly half of its space to Latin artists. "Do you pigeonhole it and call it Latin American art or just call it contemporary art? It's sometimes kind of a death knoll when you label it."
But not in the MFAH's Latin American art department, which has transformed a seeming liability into its greatest asset. Ramirez is now regarded as a uniquely brilliant curator because her "Inverted Utopias" show single-handedly rewrote the definition of Latin American art. It presented, for the first time in a major exhibit, an entirely new chapter in the subcontinent's artistic development. The collected artists seem to have less in common with stereotypes of Latin America than with the avant-garde art movements of the West. Yet what's amazing is that they were working with those cutting-edge concepts just as and even sometimes before Western artists discovered them.
For artists such as Espada, the show is a landmark, a sign of renewed appreciation for his work and a personal artistic revelation.
He recently visited the exhibit with his friend James Harithas, the art car guru, who also put on the first Chicano exhibit in Texas as director of Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum.
The two men stop in front of a painting of a phantasmagoric blue beast, which writhes before a shadowy crowd on a beach in Espada's Puerto Rico. "It's like the artists of the cold war," Harithas says. "These artists also feel the oppression of the system of American control of their island, right? They were very clear about what they thought was happening to them, but they didn't convey it overtly. That is a metaphor for an animal that could mean anything, but the feeling of the whole thing is--"
Espada has been trying to contain himself. "Hungriness!" he interjects. "Starvingness!"
Elsewhere in the exhibit, Espada views paintings less emotionally and nationalistically, and more based on his Western perspectives. He approaches a work by the Argentine Xul Solar. "Now if you ever want to mention European influence, it's right here," he tells Harithas, "because this is kind of Paul Klee-ish."
But Harithas is wearing a grin. "Look at the date," he says. "Nineteen-twenty-four. He even did it before Klee."
These kinds of revelations could ultimately be the greatest assets for Houston's emerging Latino and Latin American artists. By defining Latin art more broadly, the museum will open the door for local painters and sculptors to engage their ethnic backgrounds without boxing themselves in.
"This is not just about being the marginalized Latino artist in Houston," Ramirez says, "but rather being part of a very dynamic field that comprises 20 different nations and artists who are working all over the world."
Strolling deeper into the exhibit, Espada finds connections to his art from throughout the subcontinent. The friends pause before the 1963 painting, One of These Days by Argentine Luis Felipe Noé. Like Espada's canvases, the paint drips and the colors are bright, yet earthy. It reminds Harithas of abstract expressionism. And a 1958 painting by Brazilian Hélio Oiticica, a bright red canvas overlaid with intriguingly conjoined white rectangles, evokes Espada's recent move toward minimalism. "This lives in my art now," he says.
Even Villegas's ironic Christ has analogs in the show. There's a Jesus figure crucified on a dive-bombing F-16, for example, and Love One Another, a drawing of lusty lesbian nuns.
Ramirez plans to point out connections between Latino and Latin American artists in future exhibits. She's particularly fascinated by the link between Texas-born artist Luis Jiménez and Argentine artist Juan Carlos Distéfano, whose Christlike worker is about to be electrocuted in the exhibit on a bending, epoxy-resin telephone pole. "Since the 1960s, Jiménez in the United States and Distéfano in Argentina were working in the same industrial medium," she says, "taking it to a level of virtuosity that nobody had even thought was possible."
On an envelope, Espada has painted an elaborate weave of brush strokes. The doodle sits on a large table in his liquor-store-cum-loft, atop a pile of bills and a stack of ten years' worth of his work. Nearby is a bottle of Cobalt Black Underglaze, a windshield wiper used as a squeegee and a pair of paint-splattered Reebok high-tops. But since Espada moved here in April, the envelope is the only thing he's painted.
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.