Private Icons, Cultural Perspectives: The Painting and Sculpture by Rudy Fernandez

by Julie Sasse



The following essay was written in June, 2001 by Julie Sasse, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Tucson Museum of Art, for an exhibition to be held August 17 - September 16, 2001 at the Mazatlan Museum of Art. The essay is reprinted with permission of the author.


Over the last several decades, Hispanic art has grown in scope and vision -- not just because artists whose origins lay in Latin America have expanded their oeuvre, but because curators, gallerists and critics have acknowledged the exciting pluralistic qualities of their art. While no one style defines Hispanic, Chicano, or Latin American art, certain images, themes, and compositions which incorporate vivid cultural connections are often exalted, particularly in the United States. Rudy Fernandez, an artist currently living in Arizona, has achieved widespread recognition for his singular focus on the lyrical and the poignant. His paintings and sculpture, unabashedly autobiographical through the use of identifiable cultural symbols, are intensely personal and private at the same time. Fernandez's art has been called Pop, campy, expressive, hyper-real and sentimental, at once noted for its cool detachment and compositional control. In actuality, it is all those things. Concerned, first of all, with making very conscious and personal statements, he follows no one formula except his own personal vision. His mixed media paintings that combine sculpture and painting pay homage to a range of art styles and forms drawn from his personal experiences and vast knowledge of his Hispanic roots. Fernandez sees himself not as a painter or a sculptor, or as a Chicano or Hispanic per se, but as an artist who chooses his medium and his message according to personal preference and expressive need.

Born in 1948 in Trinidad, Colorado, near the San Luis Valley and the New Mexico state line, Fernandez was raised in middle class white neighborhoods as his family moved throughout the Southwest. By the time he was nine years old, Fernandez was settled with his family in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he attended Catholic primary schools and a public high school. While his family on both sides had lived in the United States for generations, his father made him aware of his Mexican heritage. His father is also credited with encouraging Fernandez's early interest in art by working with him on various projects and giving him positive feedback on his many drawings.

Geology, however, was to be his first major once he graduated from high school, keeping close ties with his father's vocation. It was during this time, however, that a geology professor saw a small oil painting that Fernandez was creating on his own time and implored him to try a full semester of only art studies. This support and awakening of his true passion made it inevitable that he would switch his attentions fill time to his art. Finally in the art program at the University of Colorado, Fernandez (encouraged by professors and fellow students who embraced the idea of "Chicano Art") began to politicize his heritage as addressed through his art. Fernandez did not feel pressured to create "propaganda art," like so many of his peers, but took his developing interest in multiculturalism and cultural pride to voice his own respect for his ethnic background. (left: Homage to Manhood # 1)

At the University of Colorado in Boulder he became a teaching assistant and found himself active in the university's Chicano community as the Coordinator of the Chicano Art Component, directing activities and programs for undergraduates. At Boulder, he received a coveted Ford Foundation Grant for study abroad in Europe. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1974 and motivated by his undergraduate successes, Fernandez moved to the northwest to attend Washington State University in Pullman. There he became the photographer for the Chicano Studies Program, photographing Mexican art and conducting research on Mexican and Chicano art for the Art History department. In 1975 he received an International Programs scholarship that he used for study at the Institute Cultural Tenochtitlan in Mexico, D.F., where he taught painting as a graduate teaching assistant. When he returned to Washington State in 1976, armed with an increased interest and knowledge of Mexican mural painting, Fernandez became a consultant to the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Washington to design and implement a working model of mural painting, and taught basic design classes and independent study classes in painting, sculpture and drawing.

Although Fernandez exhibited his paintings and sculpture in group exhibitions in Denver and Boulder during the early 1970s, it wasn't until 1975 that he was labeled a Chicano artist, signified by his inclusion in the Exhibition Artistas de Aztlan in Seattle, Washington. Following this exhibition, Fernandez participated in "Artists of the Southwest" at the Galeria De La Raza in San Francisco, and the Second Southwest Chicano Invitational at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, firmly placing him among other notable emerging Latino artists.

An indicator of Fernandez's identification with his Catholic upbringing and Mexican heritage is evident in one of his first autobiographical sculptures, Trinidad Brick Cadillac, 1974-75. Documenting his passage through life, he created a glass-paneled, wooden enclosure, not unlike the reliquaries and glass coffins containing images or remains of saints. Instead of this artfully carved box holding such treasures, however, his sculpture holds a simple brick from the artist's hometown and other memorabilia precious to the artist's past. In actuality, his intention was to create the work to emulate the elaborately carved wood and brass boxes carried by Mexico City shoeshine boys that he had seen on his travels, but the double entendre is clear -- the intertwining of everyday experiences with higher, spiritual concerns was as much a part of the artist's life as the people with whom he was being categorized. (left: Trinidad Brick Cadillac, 1974-75)

Another pivotal work, which began an ongoing series of lead-covered retablo forms, is Homage to Manhood, 1976. Created to be placed in a corner, this small, intimate piece contains a small drawer that holds a delicately carved and painted wooden chile pepper, emblematic of manhood. From this early experimentation of form and painting, though originally simple in composition and unassuming in size, his works grew in size and complexity as his studio situations and opportunities increased.

By the time he graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1977, he was included in as many mainstream exhibitions as those with Chicano themes, but such a distinction at that time in contemporary American art opened doors and allowed for a level of visibility that encouraged the development of his ideas and involvement in the arts. Soon his reputation grew to a national level, and institutions from the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., acquired works by Fernandez for their permanent collections. (left: Homage to Manhood # 2)

In 1981, after moving to Phoenix, Arizona, three years earlier, Fernandez received an Arizona Commission on the Arts Visual Arts Fellowship, an award that launched a decade of impressive artistic production and exhibitions throughout California, Colorado, Arizona and Mexico. His subsequent participation in stellar exhibitions during the mid-1980s -- such as the ones at the Fresno Arts Center, which featured an exhibition of Mexican Artists and Printmakers; "Arte, Arte!" at the Transamerica Center in Los Angeles; and "Lo Del Corazon, Heartbeat of a Culture," at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco -- virtually assured Fernandez's place as one of the pre-eminent Chicano artists of his time. The connection between his culture and the individuality of his symbols and forms were evident in the work he created at this time. As critics observed:

Fernandez's art might be understood best as a ritual encounter process in the largest sense. This encounter includes a reaffirmation of belonging to the culture and developing a sense of personal identity. His art is both individual and communal. It is emblematic with strong regional and ethno-religious connotations; but once these factors have been internalized by him, they explode in a universal language of high key color and the evocative beauty of nature.[1]

The personalization of his work while embracing emblems and forms from his region and heritage became a necessary formula in the artist's expression of ideas, which expanded in vocabulary, scale, and compositional complexity.

As a result of his increased recognition and visibility, Fernandez was invited by the curators from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., who organized Hispanic Art in the United States for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, to participate in this landmark exhibition in 1987. Touring throughout the United States, this exhibition placed Fernandez, then living in Santa Fe, firmly among the most significant artists of Latin American descent. Chosen for his precise execution and ethnically inspired themes, Fernandez's significance is made clear by co-curator John Beardsley:

His works are exceedingly sincere, even ingenuous, in their use of regional and ethnic images, yet they have few rivals in the care with which they are fabricated. Style in these instances, may be conditioned by cultural preferences even as it affirms them; that is, style may be relative, but craftsmanship most decidedly is not.[2]

While attention to craftsmanship and its sources in the folk art of Mexico and New Mexico is evident in Fernandez's art, as the curator of this benchmark exhibition observed, it is equal to the seriousness of the metaphoric references to the artist's life,

Such attributes can be noted in Fernandez's Sal si Puedes, 1985, which was included in the Houston Museum exhibition. In this mixed media construction, deftly carved prickly pear cacti bearing succulent fruit share a composition with a rooster, a rose, and a female hand, within a retablo format embellished with lead-covered woodcarvings of hearts and painted lunettes. Following Fernandez's iconography, the symbols are simple indicators of the artist's life. The prickly pear, although carved with a smooth texture and enticingly luscious fruit, has in reality sharp, barbed thorns -- a reminder of human beings and the hidden guardedness with which they protect themselves. The rose, like the many types of flowers he has painted over the years, represents beauty in its myriad forms. In this case, an American Beauty variety, stands for love, but the presence of thorns is a reminder that matters of the heart can also cause pain. The subtle hint of a female hand, complete with polished red nails, stands for his then wife, Denise, with whom he remains close friends.[3] The inclusion of three hearts, a constant motif during this time, signifies intimate love, love of family, and the love of friends, three elements that have sustained the artist throughout his life. The image of the rooster represents a tongue-in-cheek representation of the artist himself, a common image of bravado and machismo. All these symbols have become part of Fernandez's rich vocabulary of icons and symbols, parts of an ongoing personal narrative, occasionally added to as his life's experiences necessitated representation.[4]

Melding expressive abstraction with stylized representation and hyper-realism, Fernandez created MockingMe, 1985, another powerfully symbolic work revealing still more motifs representing his life
and emotional map. In this work, a mocking bird sits attentively atop a prickly pear pad and gazes at a three dimensionally carved wooden heart wrapped with jagged lead shards. To the lower right of the composition, another carved wooden sculptural element -- suggestive of a large carving knife -- is a
jarring reminder of the passions of the heart and, perhaps, an indicator of his failing marriage and conflicting romantic entanglements during this time. Tellingly, another mixed media work created a year later, entitled Entangled, continues his personal narrative with the inclusion of neon frets, flowering cacti with luscious red blooms, and floating three-dimensional hearts. The heaviness of the lead-covered frame, the rich reds of the neon, flowers and hearts, and sense of frenzy in the background reveal the intensity with which the artist merged his life and art. (left: 1492)

Not all work by Fernandez has been entirely autobiographical, however. The artist has also addressed certain political issues over the years. In 1991, while living in Santa Fe, he created 1492, a large, dramatic mixed media painting in wood, lead, neon and oil on canvas. This work is significant, because it makes a departure from his more personal works to address the controversial conception of the "discovery" of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. Here Fernandez used the symbolism of fifteenth-century Spain to express his view of a much-debated time in history. In this work, three lead-covered crosses, embellished with delicately carved lunettes, represent the Roman Catholic Church (perhaps implying the same fate for native peoples as Christ experienced on the cross) and the three ships of Columbus. Perched on a green cactus branch, a black raven represents ominous tidings, a warning of the profound changes to come as a result of European explorations. The upper right side of the composition reveals a cascading white drape, symbolizing both the purity and the innocence vanquished by greed and corruption in the name of religion and national superiority. Accentuating the scene are two signature lead-covered, carved high relief hearts which frame a seductive red neon fret element bordered by white neon bars. The fret symbol represents a portal, or passage between past, present and future. Such elements intensify the metaphoric nature of the painting, suggesting through color and symbol the concept of lust and greed connected with early Spanish conquest.[5]

While Fernandez adroitly tackles historic and political issues, he is at his best when he reveals himself through his emblems and symbols of his passage through life. The last ten years, for example, have marked profound changes in his personal life, including the death of his youngest brother in 1995, with whom he was very close. More contemplative than ever, and addressing his sense of loss, he created a series of "momento mori" paintings, paying homage to his brother. In these works, the rose symbol moves from romantic love to brotherly love and the poignant sense of grief and loss of a family member. In another progression, images of flames in two and three dimensions (long a part of his artistic vocabulary which represented the burning of the pre-Colombian pyramids by the Spanish during the Conquest) present a different view. In Fernandez's Destruction by Fire #2, 1997, flames become a symbol of the violence and emphatically terminal nature of death. The trout, a repetitive emblem of the 'witness" once representing a professor who acted as the artist's mentor and champion, now becomes the artist himself as he stands witness to the uncontrollable changes that swirl around him -- life and death are inevitable and we must all stand as witnesses to the events that unfold before us. (left: Pyramids # 5)

Throughout his career, Fernandez has been a reluctant pessimist, standing in resolute determination to overcome the pathos of his life. Noticing the element of wry humor in his work, writer Robert Cauthorn aptly noted, "There is an edge of impending tragedy to a game of catch with a person's heart, but in this dreamscape the trout mitigates the tension. If fish can fly, things can't be all that bad."[6] Through the support and closeness of his family and friends, and the cathartic qualities of his art, Fernandez has renewed his sense of connection to loved ones and his past. Acutely aware of the power of symbols to express himself autobiographically about his emotional journey, he continues to successfully employ his special vocabulary of emblems and images to make poignant narratives about the transitory nature of life.



1. Carol Kotrozo and Barbara Perlman, "Male Passages," Arizona Arts and Lifestyle, Summer, 1982, 39.

2. John Beardsley, Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors, Abbeville Press, 1987, 75.

3. Later, a black gloved hand was added to his repertoire, a reference to his second wife, and reminder of what Fernandez refers to as "the sinister aspects of love." Interview by Julie Sasse, Phoenix, Arizona, May 14, 2001.

4. v One symbol, which he dropped in the 1990s, acted as his signature -- a red heart with a black center, inside of which a lone, white saguaro stands, once again a representation of the artist, the cactus acting as his soul. It was dropped because some viewers misread it as a defiant gesture rather than a sincere symbol of the self. Interview, May 14, 2001.

5. Fernandez has included neon in his work since 1984. His interest in this medium stems from an interest in the "funky, kitschy roadside signs" he saw along Route 66 in the Southwest. Interview with the artist, Phoenix, Arizona June 2, 2001.

6 Robert Cauthorn, "Fernandez Paints Works of Great Personality," Arizona Daily Star, June 23, 1986, 2.

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