Artist Roberto Gil de Montes draws from unlikely inspiration for new works debuting at Bergamot Station
By Michael Aushenker
The chacmool — a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican representation of a reclining figure with his head upright — is among the recurring symbols of ancient Mexico that appear in artist Roberto Gil de Montes’ work.
But only recently did the Guadalajara-born artist, whose newest paintings debut Saturday at Bergamot Station, learn that his fascination with the chacmool also connects him to Henry Moore, the renowned English sculptor whose work inspired him to become an artist.
When Gil de Montes was 10 years old, he saw a documentary about Moore that changed his life.
“Television had just arrived at my city. I was watching a documentary because that’s all they played, a documentary on Henry Moore. I still remember the images: a huge art studio in this idyllic place with a lawn and trees,” Gil de Montes, 62, recalled.
The connection seemed to end there, until he recently began to reinvestigate Moore’s work — finding, to his surprise, a familiar iconography.
“One of the first sculptures Henry Moore did was of a chacmool. I started looking back at Henry Moore and I learned that he was inspired by pre-Columbian pieces,” Gil de Montes said. “And now, there’s a connection again.”
Moore and the art of the Huichol, the indigenous people of Jalisco (where Gil de Montes lives today) figure prominently in Gil de Montes’ latest canvases. That said, Gil de Montes purposely moved away from the narratives inherent with the hieroglyphic-like symbols of pre-Columbian art by dropping them into works such as “Monster Wins” with a purposeful non-narrative intent.
“I randomly select symbols and figures and put them together,” he said, although he acknowledges that “there could be a story there.” Case in point: the sequence of icons in “Monster Wins”— pistol, red bullet, deer, pool of blood under the deer.
“It’s a little bit talking about living in Mexico and the culture of violence in the background where I live,” he said, alluding to contemporary story lines.
Another painting, the autobiographical “Yo Cora” (“I Am”), was “one of the pieces of the show that I did in the beginning [of this current creative direction],” he said. “‘I am.’ I embody the primitive culture. The mask is a ritual mask and the person is me. I was born in the area.”
Here in Los Angeles, Gil de Montes enjoyed an affiliation with Jan Baum Gallery on La Brea Avenue that spanned 26 years until Baum recently retired. Twice annually, Gil de Montes returns to Echo Park, where he still has family and a residence.
Gil de Montes left Los Angeles 13 years ago and lived in San Francisco for six years after his partner landed work there. They recently moved back to a small fishing village in Jalisco, where artisans crafting yarn paintings and beaded works have replaced interaction with the urban visual arts community.
His art, however, has not changed radically: “It’s still very naïve and folk has always been a part of my work, but I do see a difference — a different interest,” he said, alluding to the natural landscape of his new home.
The content of the 15 works he’ll have on display in Santa Monica is decidedly calmer than during the last time Gil de Montes exhibited in Los Angeles, when he concerned himself artistically with “the potential of evil in human beings.”
In San Francisco, Gil de Montes had found a discarded copy of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” a meditation on man’s true nature versus his phony façades that led the artist into political terrain with post-9/11 allusions to terrorism, the Iraq War, and Abu Ghraib prison abuse.
“I’m in a different place now. I came [to California] with my entire family as an immigrant in 1962 and I was able to return to Mexico and find that there is something there for me and they still think I’m a gringo,” Gil de Montes said.
“When you’re young and you’re in L.A. and you’re struggling, your ambition keeps you going,” he continued. “I don’t think I have that anymore. I’m in a place where I can do the work that I want to do and make paintings for myself.”
The opening reception for “Roberto Gil de Montes: Hecho en México” begins with a talk by the artist at 4 p.m. and continues through 7 p.m. at Lora Schlesinger Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Ste. T3, Santa Monica. The exhibit continues through May 17.Call (310) 828-1133 or visit loraschlesinger.com.