This past October, Roberto Gil de Montes’s first solo exhibition in Mexico, Temporada de lluvias, opened at kurimanzutto, Mexico City. The series of paintings on view depicted high summer in La Peñita de Jaltemba. The small fishing town on the Pacific Coast of Nayarit is both the artist’s home and main inspiration in his work. In the exhibition, audiences encountered a town filled with alluring characters, tropical landscapes and seascapes, and mystic dreamscapes that waver between the real and the imaginary.
On the occasion of Temporada de lluvias, kurimanzutto took the opportunity to look back at Gil de Montes’s life and artistic practice over the past six decades. This research culminated in an archival presentation at the gallery. His involvement in the Chicano art movement in the 1970s and 1980s in East Los Angeles, the impact of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1990s and the Iraq War in the early 2000s, and his ongoing engagement with the Huichol communities in Mexico, are just some of the many topics we discovered. kurimanzutto is pleased to share Gil de Montes’s stories with you for the second iteration of From the Archive.
Gil de Montes was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1950, and was fascinated by the murals of José Clemente Orozco and the celebrations surrounding Día de Muertos at a young age. In 1965, he relocated to East Los Angeles with his family, where he became aware of the emerging Chicano movement. After graduating from Roosevelt High School, he spent two years studying photography at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. For a class assignment, he made Self-Portrait, East Los Angeles (1968), which foreshadows the inclusion of masks in the artist’s works as well as questions surrounding his cultural identity as a Mexican living in the United States.
Otis Art Institute
Gil de Montes primarily focused on figurative drawing and painting as an undergraduate student at Otis Art Institute. His sketchbook drawings from 1973 were made during a drawing class with Joseph Mugnaini, who provided his students with traditional training in the medium. By the time he entered graduate school, the conceptual art movement in Los Angeles was burgeoning. Influenced by the teachings of Lynda Benglis, Guy de Cointet, and Joan Jonas, Gil de Montes began to experiment with minimalist painting, using materials such as wax and encaustic, as well as performance and photography. For the exhibition Twelve and Nine at Otis Student Gallery, he presented an installation of wood cutouts painted on both sides that represent mythic figures clad with masks and surrounded by entwined serpents that hung from wires.
Lace (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions)
As a young artist, Gil de Montes was an active member of the Chicano art movement in East Los Angeles and one of the ten founders of LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions). The experimental art space, which still operates today, was founded in 1978 as a space to promote the cultural exchange between queer and Chicanx artists in Los Angeles and throughout Latin America. He participated in and organized several exhibitions at LACE, including a No Movie exhibition with the avant-garde performance collective Asco. Gil de Montes exhibited the work Tongue Tied (1978), consisting of a three-by-four-foot gelatin silver print imaging a figure bound in a white sheet in a field. Electrical wires emerged from the figure’s face and were connected to a pile of goat tongues that lay on the floor.
Eighteen Months in Mexico City
In 1979, art historian and curator Carla Stellweg invited Gil de Montes to move to Mexico City to work at Museo de Arte Moderno and guest edit a special issue of Artes Visuales devoted to Chicano/a art. Artes Visuales was the Museum’s prestigious art journal and the first biliangual arts magazine in Latin America. His friend and mentor Carlos Almaraz, who he met in graduate school at Otis Art Institute, along with Almaraz’s wife and fellow artist Elsa Flores, were two of the many artists featured in the issue. During the eighteen months he lived in Mexico City, Gil de Montes also continued experimenting with photography. He made a series of large-scale black-and-white photographs with oil paints applied to the surface that depicted the cityscape of Mexico City. Mexico City (1981) is one of his “sporadic photomurals” that combines photography and painting to expose the pollution in the city.
Return to Los Angeles
Upon moving back to Los Angeles, Gil de Montes was inspired to return to painting. Cowboy vs. Myth (1984) is characteristic of the work he made throughout the 1980s. In the painting, an American cowboy dressed in black aims his gun at a crocodile who has the head of a human. The crocodile references the Aztec myth of the crocodile who survived the earth’s flooding and whose body became the bedrock on which the earth was repopulated. The small-scale canvas and the pink, wooden frame with guns collaged onto it, is reflective of the artist’s renewed connection with his Mexican heritage, specifically folk art, as well as his Los Angeles surroundings. The work was included in the 1984 group show Small Wonder at Jan Baum Gallery. The exhibition was the first of many group and solo shows he would participate in with Jan Baum and other institutions throughout the 1980s. Ten works by Gil de Montes were also exhibited in the formative group show and accompanying catalogue Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors (1987) organized by Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The show traveled to Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), as well as to four other venues over the course of three years.
Fear and Loss
In the 1990s, Gil de Montes made paintings in response to the impact the HIV/AIDS epidemic had on him and his community. The artist describes the mystical iconography in Behind the Eight Ball (1991) as paralleling his feelings of “being in a difficult position in time.” Fear of loss and abandonment was at an all-time high for the artist, especially after Almaraz had passed. In his 1991 solo show at Jan Baum Gallery, there were works made on old Mexican retablos, such as Retablo del Diablo (1991), where a figure blows air at a disembodied heart. Gil de Montes also began a series of paintings he continues to make today of men veiled behind floral screens. Screen (1996), imaging a figure in a suit and veiled behind white lace, was acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., and immediately went on view in the traveling exhibition Arte Latino: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum from 2000 to 2002.
Five Years in San Francisco
In 2005, Gil de Montes had his final solo show at Jan Baum Gallery, exhibiting works on paper made over the course of the five years he was living in San Francisco. The fractured face seen in Capricho (2005) was inspired by the evil in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and the photographs of members of the United States Army and CIA committing war crimes against detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The idea of witnessing a fractured personality reflected on a person’s face interested the artist and instigated the emergence of what Leah Ollman described in her review of the show for the Los Angeles Times as, “faces composed of a splintered mosaic of jagged planes of rust and slate and gold.”
La Peñita de Jaltemba
Gil de Montes first visited La Peñita in 1985, and immediately fell in love with the coastal fishing town. By 1993, he and his partner Eddie Dominguez bought a house there and the landscape of La Peñita featured more frequently in his work. Coral Island, which he can see from the window of his home, is a common motif for the artist and the main subject of Under Venus (1999). In 2005, La Peñita became their permanent residence and Gil de Montes began to merge the iconogrpahy of the Huichol—an indigenous group with a strong presence in La Peñita—with his own. In Chac Mool (2014), he paints his own version of the chac mool reclining in La Peñita. The chac mool is a Mayan sculpture associated with Chaac, the god of rain, worshiped by many indigenous communities. The painting was made in anticipation of his first solo show in ten years: Hecho en México at Lora Schlesinger Gallery in Santa Monica, CA.