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|The New Latin Cool
by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
|Plenty of artists find unending interest in facial expression but Salomon Huerta waits for his subjects to turn away. In the borrowed downtown loft that he uses as a studio, his almost life-size paintings of the backs of heads and figures hang on the white brick walls like an unexpected crowd scene. Cool and precise, they look toward jewel-tone backgrounds of crimson and gold.
Crisp and clear-sighted, Huerta's unconventional approach to portraiture has earned him critical acclaim and collector commitment, ever since his paintings were included in last year's Whitney Biennial. Newsweek's Peter Plagens compared his work to that of such established figures as Ed Ruscha and Wayne Thiebaud. And it is the paintings of heads and figures that attracted the interest of powerhouse art dealer Larry Gagosian, who will exhibit Huerta's work at his galleries in New York and London next year.
Yet Huerta has already begun to move on.
"I don't want to be pigeon-holed as the guy who paints heads," he says with a slight Spanish inflection in his English. He directs a visitor's attention to his latest series, paintings of the simple, stucco post-war houses so ubiquitous in Southern California. Both heads and houses are featured in his show at the Patricia Faure Gallery from Oct. 21 to Nov. 25, 2000.
Dressed in a navy pullover and khaki slacks, Huerta, 35, is affable and thoughtful. Perched on a stool next to a table topped with books on Bellini and Caravaggio, Huerta takes in the progress on his latest paintings. The luminous house pictures are based on snapshots that he took in San Bernadino, but instead of luminosity, the photos reveal shabby, dull houses fronted by burnt-out grass.
"They are the generic house that you might find in any neighborhood, except a very wealthy neighborhood," he says. He has transformed them into pristine jewels of peach and lemon perched on manicured lawns. "I got the idea by visiting a jail in Watts and seeing a nearby housing project that was so remodeled, it looked like something from The Truman Show," he says. "Maybe if you beautify the community, it would solve the problems."
As important for Huerta was his feeling that the L.A. community was familiar with his rear-view paintings, which he has been executing for the past two years. "It's a challenge to reinvent yourself and see how far you can take the work," he says. "The houses are an extension of the heads in that they are treated the same way -- detached and stripped down."
To create the effect, Huerta lays glossy, sheer layers of color with scarcely a whisper of a brush stroke. Ironically, the extreme neutrality of his technique is what draws in viewers.
The L.A. Times' art critic Christopher Knight recently observed, "Huerta objectifies the painting to establish a parallel experience. . . The usual split between mind and body gets fused together."
"My goal was to do a portrait detached from the viewer so he can search for some kind of connection," Huerta says, looking at his unfinished canvas of a head covered in short red hair. "You don't have the face to instantly leave a visual or emotional connection. Also, I didn't give away my own identity. Disguising them, I also disguise myself."
The paintings' basis in realism, with a nod toward Huerta's training as an illustrator, only adds to their mystery. Still, traditional figure painters see his work and point out that the ears are supposed to be translucent.
"This is not about the figure," Huerta argues. "It just is a figure. It's not illusional in terms of figure painting. In fact, the perspective is off in all of them." He indicates three snapshots taped together to make an image of a figure sitting in a chair. "The torso is longer and the lower legs are longer than normal but it works visually. As long as they are visually convincing at a glance, the more you look at them the more you see. I'm focusing on the shapes but not the nuances that make up the rendering. Sometimes, I'm interested in the color, period."
Huerta's talent as a colorist is considerable. For example, the shaved head of a Filipino man is set against a ruby background and in another painting, a tangerine house rests on an emerald lawn under a robin's egg blue sky.
"I love to look at magazines," he adds. "I incorporate the dominant colors into my palette. Viewers have something that feels familiar to them."
Over and over, when Huerta talks about his work, he comes back to his careful avoidance of inserting himself -- or overt emotion -- into the paintings. It's a purposeful strategy to separate himself from the expressionism and literal, often religious, iconography of much Latino painting.
"The images themselves are very controlled and my paint is applied methodically to make the paintings as cold as possible. I'm focusing visually, rather than emotionally," Huerta says. "I wanted to create images that were not typical of Latino images because I didn't want to get ghettoized."
Huerta, who lives in Van Nuys, was born in Tijuana but moved to L.A. at the age of four, and to the projects in Boyle Heights at 9, with his parents and three brothers and four sisters. His father, who died four years ago, worked in a factory and his mother cleaned houses.
In high school, Huerta took a Saturday class at Art Center and after securing student loans, he enrolled there. "It was a difficult school to be a part of because it demanded so much," he recalls. "But you got discipline and focus."
Instead of pursuing commercial art after he graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in illustration in 1991, Huerta exhibited his paintings in galleries.
According to critic Rita Gonzalez, the early work "used prison house tattoo stylistics, cholo letterings and portraiture to render his personal experiences with Chicano working-class cultures."
Many of his Art Center friends had become successful at putting their graphics skills to work with computers. "They would tell me you can make more money than you will ever make as an artist," Huerta recalls. "But I would refuse by saying my heart is not in it."
Despite his financial distress, over the next three years Huerta was featured in seven group shows, many with Latino themes, and two solo shows at Julie Rico Gallery in Santa Monica. But he felt insecure about how well his education had prepared him for a career in contemporary art. In 1994, former director of the UCLA Hammer Museum, Henry Hopkins, suggested that Huerta pursue graduate school.
Although reluctant to "start all over again," once accepted at UCLA, Huerta found a mentor in Lari Pittman. "He was very supportive and encouraged me to continue painting."
It was during his time at UCLA that Huerta began to depart from the identifiably Chicano imagery of his early work and move toward the neutrality of the heads. His first show at Patricia Faure -- in 1998, the year he finished his master's -- unveiled the rear view portraits. It sold out and was followed by seven group shows in the next two years. Collectors have snapped up the new paintings, too, at prices ranging from $3,500 to $7,500.
"I went from painting three days a week to every day for one year straight," he says.
In fact, he worked such long hours in a $100-a-month unventilated studio that he developed an allergy to oil paint and solvents. "I had to paint with the windows closed so that no dust would get on the wet paint," he explains.
Which explains why he is borrowing a friend's downtown studio until he can find another with proper ventilation. Plus, he wears a special plastic mask to paint and wears gloves to hold his brushes.
Huerta takes no time off from his painting schedule, however. He realizes that this is his big opportunity. "You've got to do whatever it takes," he says. "Especially for people of color, you only get one shot so you better be ready."
Salomon Huerta, Oct. 21 to Nov. 25, at Patricia Faure Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave, B-7. Santa Monica, CA. 90404 (310) 449-1479.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.
Sponsored by AXA Nordstern Art Insurance Corporation.