San Francisco

Rupert Garcia

The Mexican Museum / Harcourts Gallery

The Rupert Garcia retrospective of 17 years’ work was timely, not as a summation (as an artist, Garcia is a young 45) and not because of the quality of political statements in the work, but because it caught the artist amid an efflorescence. Together with the small gallery sampling of new work, it left one with that giddy off-the-diving-board sensation one prays for, and least often expects, from a mid-career survey.

Garcia is known as a California-born Chicano painter and printmaker who devised the boldest, most succinct silk-screen images during the third-world poster movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s and who helped found the important Bay Area venue for Chicano-Latino art, Galeria de la Raza. Inflected with a sophistication about contemporary styles (primarily those of Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist, though you can see traces of Ellsworth Kelly Robert Indiana, and Tom Wessel-man too), his posters content themselves with fast, precise efficacy. As signs populated by heroes and victims (from the stalwart Emiliano Zapata to the implied figures pinioned by barbed wire in Cesen Deportation (Stop deportation, 1973), they are singular and blatant, stylistically sure but a hit reined in. They accomplish purposeful transformations—remaking printed images into vivid social emblems—but their range is limited by the quick-shot communicability of the squeegee look. With his mid-’70s shift to pastels (and to uncommonly large formats for that tender medium), Garcia’s work picked up scale and density without (at first, anyway) slowing down its messages. In Inez Garcia, 1975–77, for instance, the intimacy of pastel, projected into large scale, turns a nonintimate subject (a woman standing trial for killing the man who raped her) into a palpable identity that confronts and tells more than news items about her could convey.

Not all of Garcia’s portraits deliver such a punch. In fact, practically the entire series of re- (or de-) constructions of famous artists’ self-portraits, 1980–84, seems aimless and tired. In the last two years, however, Garcia’s skills have developed more apace with his seriousness. Dividing horizontal sheets with composite imagery, he opens his pictures up to multiple meanings, making them more volatile to the understanding as well as more substantial to the eye. In Hermana á Hermana (Sister to sister, 1985) and La Virgen y Yo (The Virgin and I, 1984), smokelike finger smudges and sharp darts of color sustain the surface field across abutting images. Such touches add to the ominous aspects of dark, fuzzy silhouettes. In Inside/Outside, 1985, the blackness of a shredded hut is engulfed at the heart of a splendid blue mountain. Garcia’s chalk tones match lushness with horror; the brilliance of a Guerrero mask and that of a bullet wound become sensibly equal.

Garcia says, “Now many political works seem trying—embarrassing to one’s eyes:’ In fact, most political art produces a hothouse aura, which—presumably—would be the last thing it’s after. Political iconography regularly takes on the narcissistic assurance of exotic plant life; either cloying or laboriously thought up, it represents an indigestion of reality Garcia shuns that kind of embarrassment. His pictures are stylized but don’t feel stylized, which means you experience them as facts, as documents, and something more. So far his basic subject is human dignity, a fragile sense of worth literally under fire. Or else it is the dignity of artistic rightness versus the need to dignify an all-too-recognizable social content. Or the image of the fully conscious citizen-artist faced with heavy trading in images of a strife that refuses artistic control.

Bill Berkson