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Salomón Huerta: Paintings


The Austin Museum of Art (AMOA) is presenting the first solo museum exhibition of work by Salomón Huerta. Salomón Huerta: Paintings, on view through July 8, 2001 at AMOA-Downtown, features 25 paintings created between 1996 and 2000. The exhibition is organized by the Austin Museum of Art and is curated by AMOA Executive Director Elizabeth Ferrer. Born in Tijuana and based in Los Angeles, Huerta is best known for his enigmatic portraits of anonymous subjects who sit or stand with their backs to the viewer. His work was included in the 2000 Biennial of the Whitney Museum of American Art and has been exhibited in the United States, Mexico, and Europe. The Austin Museum of Art exhibition will be the first major exhibition of his paintings in Texas.

While his riveting works recall the bright palettes and streamlined compositions of earlier California painters Richard Diebenkorn and Edward Ruscha, Huerta reinvents conventional elements of Pop art, Color Field painting, and portraiture to engage the viewer in unexpected, ironic ways. By eliminating his subjects' facial features, their cultural origins and other attributes, Huerta creates a vacuum that viewers are compelled to fill with their own perceptions, biases, and experiences.

Huerta's subjects are people he encounters on the streets of Los Angeles and who agree to pose in his studio. His oil paint renderings portray his models without ornamentation in functional, utilitarian dress. Placed against glossy, colorful backgrounds in cool, contrasting colors that evoke contemporary fashion layouts and billboard advertisements, Huerta's austere subjects stand or sit squarely, heads close-shaved, arms at their sides, their bodies filling up the picture plane. The smooth surfaces of Huerta's works are characterized by a clean, hard finish, in which traces of the artist's hand are as elusive as the individuals he paints.

Some portraits depict their stiffly standing subjects head-to-toe from the back, such as the six-foot-tall man in Untitled Figure (2000), shown in a bright blue shirt and crisply creased khakis against a moss colored background. Other works show the sitter only from the nape of the neck up, such as the bald, black head against a field of brilliant red in Untitled Head (1999). (left: Salomón Huerta, Untitled Head, 1999, Oil on canvas, 11 x 12 inches, Collection of Stavros Merjos, Los Angeles)

Also in the exhibition is work from a new series of exquisitely small paintings of the exteriors of houses that Huerta photographs while driving through typical Southern California neighborhoods. As in his portraits, Huerta's method is to relentlessly rip away all identifying details about these homes, leaving only shiny, ambiguous façades.

Salomón Huerta: Paintings is fifth in AMOA?s ongoing New Works series, which seeks to provide innovative, emerging, and mid-career artists from the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean with the opportunity to present their work in a museum setting. A catalogue with an essay (see below) by Ferrer accompanies the exhibition.


Mirror/Image: Paintings by Salomón Huerta

by Elizabeth Ferrer, AMOA Executive Director


I wanted to find a way to make them non-confrontational -- to tone everything down so it was like a mirror to the viewer -- Salomón Huerta


Salomón Huerta is one of a number of young painters whose emergence in the last several years has acted to reinvigorate the genre of portraiture. The works of these artists, most notably John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, and Elizabeth Peyton, are linked not so much by a common approach to portraiture as by a desire to reassess how portraits are conceived of and looked at. Owing a debt to the coolly detached portraits of such late modernists as Andy Warhol and Alex Katz, these younger painters often project an aloof attitude in their work; their purpose is not so much to probe a person's emotional or intellectual tenor as to suggest how mass media and the artificial gloss of advertising can shape our perceptions of self and other. Salomón Huerta addresses these same concerns, but he also questions identity from a range of vantage points -- racial, social, and cultural. While seeking to give expression to Latino political and social issues, he also defies the stereotype of the "Chicano artist," and, in the process, examines the place of artists from distinct ethnicities within the contemporary art world. His larger purpose, however, is to explore how we perceive and assign identity to others, and what generates our need to do so.

Born in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1965, and raised in Los Angeles where he is still based, Huerta has pursued his work as an artist for less than a decade. While growing up in East Los Angeles he had little exposure to the visual arts, with the significant exception of the many public murals that were being painted in the 1970s by the initial generation of Chicano activist artists. Influenced by Mexican artists of the 1920s and 1930s whose politically motivated murals championed Mexico's native peoples and cultures during that country's post-Revolutionary era, artists emerging in the wake of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement painted the walls of public buildings with themes relevant to a newly politicized Mexican American populace. Huerta grew up in Ramona Gardens, one of several housing projects in East Los Angeles where young artists were allowed to execute ambitious, often monumentally scaled mural cycles. He recalls being moved by the murals of such artists as Carlos Almaraz, Willie Herrón, and Wayne Alaniz Healy. Their work, especially the psychologically infused realism of Almaraz, provided his earliest artistic inspiration.

Salomón Huerta began his studies in 1989 at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. There, he focused on illustration, a field that provided him with both technical skill and needed discipline, but one that he soon rejected, not wanting to direct his talents toward commercial ends. While moving away from illustration into the realm of fine arts, he drew upon his skill as an illustrator to produce works that he showed in his first gallery exhibitions in Los Angeles. These small-scale portraits of family members and neighbors from Ramona Gardens gained attention because of Huerta's impressive draughtsmanship and his seemingly instinctive ability to conjure a person's face with eloquence. He was frustrated, nevertheless, that his work became identified as exemplary of "Latino" or "Chicano" art, especially because of the circumscriptions that have accompanied such labeling. As Huerta had witnessed with Chicano artists who had preceded him, having one's work narrowly framed by ethnicity had the effect of limiting an artist's career, whether measured by exhibition opportunities or the critical attention that could be attained. Although Huerta's artistic concerns are linked to those of earlier generations of Chicano artists, as well as to other artists who direct their work to issues of race and ethnicity, he has sought to project a beguiling neutrality, one that would attract, in his words, "the average viewer," and would thus place his work in the broadest possible arena.

After his initial success, Huerta decided to return to school, entering the graduate program at UCLA in 1995. He notes that he was the only Latino in the program and believes that some professors were surprised, perhaps even disappointed, that his art did not conform to their expectations of the work a Chicano artist should create. Even if the environment at UCLA was not fully supportive, it was there, in 1996 and 1997, that he took the far-reaching steps in developing the artistic language for which he has become known. In spite of his formidable skill with portraiture, he decided to literally turn everything around, to paint his figures from the back, and to explore what this kind of "non-portrait" can tell us about ourselves.

The present exhibition contains a selection of Huerta's small-scale, square-shaped images of heads, as well as his larger vertical compositions of standing full figures, all seen from the back. By turning his subjects around, the artist provides us with only ambiguous clues to their identity. While most of the figures in Huerta's oeuvre are male, a few are female and possess androgynous physical characteristics, even dressing in the same generic clothing as the male figures. Some of Huerta's subjects are young Mexican Americans -- he refers to them as his "cholitos," an affectionate term for "cholos," or gang members -- others are Anglo or African American. Usually his subjects have shaved heads evoking the appearance of a boy in the military, or, conversely, one in prison. In contrast to Huerta's earlier works in which he depicted members of his family and other people with whom he was familiar, for these more recent works he has taken as his models men and women whom he hardly knows but whose physical characteristics attract him.

Huerta has spoken of these paintings as "mirror images" -- works upon which the viewer can project a certain identity and then reflect back upon the prejudices or values they call forth. The fact that we have little basis on which to judge these figures (Is this a good or a bad man? From the inner city or a suburb? Someone I'd want to know?) forces us to fall back on our own experiences, and, ultimately, to scrutinize how we relate to people or things unfamiliar. The mirror that Huerta places before us, then, is not so much physical as disconcertingly psychological.

In order to present his subjects in the most neutral terms possible, Huerta places them against an empty background, thereby negating any sort of identifying context. These subjects are stubbornly elusive; it is up to the viewer to fill in the blanks and conjure a world that these figures might inhabit. It is difficult, nevertheless, to dissociate these images from the peculiar environment of late-twentieth-century Southern California. In the last few decades, Los Angeles has become a city accustomed to random street violence, gang culture, and racial prejudice, the latter only heightened by the city's vast geography and by its continuing waves of new immigrants. Huerta's work eloquently expresses this world, one where young Latino and Black males are commonly subject to racial profiling and other forms of discrimination, and where a frighteningly high percentage of young men from neighborhoods like East L.A. have experienced prison life.

Huerta's paintings present a tantalizing, almost unnerving dichotomy: they are at once beautiful and brutal. His formally austere realism, the brightly saturated colors he uses as backdrops for his images, and the sensual, almost photo-realistic detail that he applies to his subjects, all make these works exquisite, compelling objects. The artist is well aware of his ability to deploy his technical skill to lure the viewer, but he also endows each image with a palpable sense of tension. Sensual as they may be, these paintings reflect a more real sense of youthful disaffection than any GUESS? advertisement could hope to conjure. Huerta has spoken of the influence that fashion advertising has had in his work. He deliberately uses the straightforward vernacular of contemporary advertising, with its bright, limited palettes and streamlined compositions, to address aesthetic and social issues that have no easy resolution. The result is a body of work that simultaneously involves and unsettles the viewer.

Huerta has extended his exploration of the mood of contemporary urban society in a recent series of small paintings of houses. Anyone familiar with the (sub)urban landscape of the San Fernando Valley, South Central Los Angeles, and countless other Southern California neighborhoods, can identify with the modest bungalows and tract houses that Huerta depicts. His approach to painting houses is similar to that which he uses in portraying his human subjects. Details are largely absent, leaving only a more essential image of "house," one defined by blank walls and schematic doors and windows, framed by a flat expanse of green connoting a lawn in the foreground and a similarly flat field of blue representing the sky above. The banality of these houses is underscored by the colors in which Huerta renders them: pastel pinks, lime greens, and other hues suggesting the "candy coating" that the artist associates with artificially sanitized suburban environments. These houses bear a relation to the similarly schematic, Pop-inspired houses painted a few decades ago by the British expatriate artist David Hockney. But where Hockney's modern ranch houses and languorous pools denote the benign discontent of a wealthy milieu, Huerta's connote a more threatening disenfranchisement wrought by the depersonalization of the lives of a vast lower middle class.

Huerta often relates his work to the worlds of civil authority, speaking of mug shots, criminal interrogations, and public surveillance as some of the things he thinks about when creating his paintings, because so many young people growing up in neighborhoods like East L.A. are familiar with these experiences. With this in mind, he composes his house paintings as if the homes were seen from across a street?creating for the viewer the sense of houses under observation, despite the fact that they show no signs of life. Similarly, the artist has remarked that his standing figures resemble individuals in a police line up. And yet, Huerta underscores a firm desire that viewers project their own meanings or conclusions onto these works. On the surface, a depiction of a generic house is less fraught with confrontational tension than that of a young unfamiliar male. Huerta has found a way to catch us off guard, to prompt us to think, "that's the kind of house I've seen a million times." But these houses are too schematic, too lifeless, to evoke the real. At the same time, they are not surreal: there is nothing too odd about them. In the end, Huerta creates a kind of "non-house" in the same way that his figures inhabit a "non-place," each hovering in an ambivalent, undefined space.

In offering so little detail in his works and in rendering his subjects in such a crisp, hard-edged style, Huerta also acts to create essential, iconic images. It is as if the artist -- whose own environment has been indelibly marked by stereotypes set upon it by others -- turns the process of creating stereotypes on its face. His figures so often suggest gang member, violent male, street kid, or any number of such clichéd identities. Similarly, the houses express a landscape of oppressive tedium that is often associated with the American suburbs. But these works are fraught with issues that demand to be pondered. The longer we gaze upon such an image, the more obliged we are to use our own values and experiences to create meaning. As spectator, we are confronted with the choice of accepting the stereotype, or of devising new ways of looking at something that is deceptively familiar.

I want to make work that makes the viewer question his own identity. that, in itself, is political. --Salomón Huerta

As his work has developed, Huerta has confounded another stereotype: that of the Chicano artist, his subject, and style. The first generation of Chicano artists not only responded to the radical social, political, and cultural changes taking place in their communities in the late 1960s and 1970s, but indeed, helped to engender those changes by using art to make a wider population aware of the inequities facing Chicanos. For Mexican Americans in East L.A. and throughout the Southwest, public murals were a catalyst in the conception of a new identity, as well as a means of celebrating a little-appreciated cultural legacy that extended as far back as the pre-Columbian era. Scholar Tomás Ybarra-Frausto has stated that "As an aesthetic credo, Chicano art sought to link lived reality to the imagination; to reflect and document the multiple realities of being Chicano in the urban barrios and rural colonias of the United States."[1] But despite the breadth of concerns that these artists brought to bear on their work, their art became increasingly codified and stereotyped by an outside art world. This occurred even while some of the early voices in the movement, as well as newly emerging artists in the 1980s and 1990s, were developing their work and experimenting with new artistic styles and formats. The performance work and writings of Guillermo Gómez Peña; the performances, videos, and theater projects of the collaborative group The Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo; and the recent paintings of such established artists as Gronk and Enrique Chagoya, are a few key examples of how Chicano art has fluidly moved in new directions, addressed new concerns, and encompassed ever-broadening aesthetic sensibilities.

Salomón Huerta's work may represent the most radical departure from the sensibilities that have surrounded Chicano artistic production over the last three decades. The crisp, precise style he brings to his painting, the sense of detachment he has from his subjects, and the neutral space in which he places them all reflect an artistic stance more aligned with the mainstream contemporary art world than anything witnessed in Chicano art history. But Huerta maintains a passionate commitment to creatively examining an issue central to Chicanos and to others outside the social and economic mainstream: how we, in the United States, think about and act upon questions of race, class, and gender. Through his work, Huerta suggests a consideration of these issues in the most personal terms possible, all the while striving to engage a broad audience. In Huerta's practice, race is no longer a matter of "us and them," but rather, "how do I relate to you, you to him," and so on. Each image becomes our mirror, making us reflect back upon ourselves and then back to an elusive subject in an endless repetition of questions and confrontations. For Huerta, ambivalence becomes strangely cathartic, compelling us to consider the terms by which we each negotiate the personal and social politics of identity.[2]



1 Quoted in Philip Brookman, "Looking for Alternatives: Notes on Chicano Art, 1960-1990," in Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985 (Los Angeles: Wight Art Gallery, University of California, Los Angeles, 1991), p. 184.

2 I am indebted to Lisa Dirks and Gail Sanders for their generosity and thoughtfulness in reviewing this essay.


About the author, Elizabeth Ferrer, The Dr. and Mrs. Ernest C. Butler Executive Director, Austin Museum of Art

Elizabeth Ferrer has directed the Austin Museum of Art since July 1997, and has had a long and exemplary career in the visual arts. In her position, she guides the artistic mission of the Museum, which encompasses the planning of exhibitions and educational programs; overseeing the growth of the permanent collection; and developing the Museum?s long-term strategic goals. Previously, as Director of the Visual Arts Department and Curator at the Americas Society inNew York, Ms. Ferrer curated many notable exhibitions, including her survey of the Mexican painter María Izquierdo, The True Poetry: The Art of María Izquierdo, which toured nationally in 1997-98. At the Americas Society, she was also responsible for the development of education programs and for substantially increasing the audience for education and for the galleries as a whole. As an independent curator she created such major touring exhibitions as A Shadow Born of Earth: New Photography in Mexico (catalogue published by Rizzoli), and Through the Path of Echoes: Contemporary Art in Mexico.

Elizabeth Ferrer has published numerous articles and exhibition catalogues, and has lectured extensively about Mexican and Latin American art and photography throughout the United States. Ferrer was instrumental in establishing scholarly exhibitions and educational programs for the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University in the City of New York. Ferrer holds a B.A. in art history from Wellesley College and completed graduate coursework in art history and archaeology at Columbia University with a concentration in Medieval and Renaissance art. Under Ferrer's direction, the Austin Museum of Art is working with a renewed sense of commitment toward building a world-class museum facility, slated for groundbreaking in the year 2001, with an opening scheduled in 2004.


The above essay is reprinted with permission of the Austin Museum of Art

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