Every living thing returns to Earth, and, in so doing, serves a purpose. Even an old glove degrades over time, its finger pads worn through from years of toil.
In Por Alla (2021), a mixed-media painting by artist Vicente Telles, an old leather glove bursts like a cornucopia with plant life native to the Southwest. Tendrils take root through the holes in the fingers and cacti burst through the seams. Perhaps the glove is the mother from whose ancient leather womb life still springs forth.
A wire, tied to the glove, ascends upwards. Maybe an unseen hand is using the glove like a fisherman’s net to fish life from the Earth.
But the old feeds the new. And Telles, a contemporary multimedia artist, as well as practitioner of the traditional art of the santero, sees traditional and modern art forms as part of an evolving continuum.
“Some of my santos have a more contemporary spin and thought process behind them,” says Telles, whose work is included in the group exhibition Son de Aqui, Son de Aca (They are from Here, They are from Here), which opens Friday, Sept. 2, at Hecho Gallery (through Oct. 2). “All of my work is based on the traditional materials that the santeros used.”
In the Spanish Colonial tradition, santos (images of saints) were painted with hand-mixed, natural pigments made with cochineal, indigo, and black walnut husks and other naturally occurring sources. Many santeros working today still mix their own pigments while others use synthetic paints.
“People ask, ‘Why don’t you paint in oils?’” says the 39-year-old artist. “Well, I like the idea of the limitations and having to think about the materials I’m using. It would be easy to jump to oils and be able to blend and do all that, but my art practice didn’t evolve to be easy. This is something I’ve had to work at, and I want to continue to work at it to show the kind of lasting impact that the tradition of making santos has in New Mexico and that it’s still contemporary and relevant to our present times.”
Telles is not just one of the exhibition’s artists but its curator. The invitational show includes 12 artists from the Southwest region of the United States. While Telles didn’t require a theme, all of the artists are people of color, and his intent was to help move them closer to the center of the map on which they’ve been marginalized historically or, perhaps, to establish a center of their own.
“The first iteration of this is happening right now in Albuquerque,” says Telles, who co-curated the broader, Albuquerque iteration of the exhibit with San Diego, California-based artist Ricardo Islas and Rigoberto Luna, founder of Presa House Gallery in San Antonio, Texas. “They got their constituents from where they live. I knew people here in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and L.A. We invited the Texas artists that Rigo works with. It was a big collaboration. We’d been planning it for more than a year.”
The Albuquerque exhibit, titled Son de Allá y Son de Acá (They are from There and They are from Here), is in four venues: El Chante: Casa de Cultura (804 Park Ave. SW, 505-400-3635, elchantecasadecultura.org); Exhibit/208 (208 Broadway Blvd. SE, 505-450-6884, exhibit208.com); Tortuga Gallery (901 Edith Blvd SE, 505-948-8840, tortugagallery.org); and the South Broadway Cultural Center (1025 Broadway Blvd SE, 505-848-1320, cabq.gov/artsculture/south-broadway-cultural-center). It includes work by approximately 60 artists.
“It’s just to bring awareness to the contemporary brown maker here in the Southwest and in New Mexico,” Telles says. “I feel that oftentimes they go overlooked or get pushed to the side. There’s not a value being assigned to these creators. The whole point was to bring these communities together.”
The artists exhibiting at Hecho Gallery include Sabrina Zarco, Augustine Romero, Yvonne Vazquez, Frank Zamora, and Jocelyn Lorena Salaz. Zarco is an autistic, ChicanIndian, and queer femme artist who works primarily in fiber arts. Zamora, who, like Telles, is a frequent exhibitor at the annual Spanish Market in Santa Fe, is an artist who adapts Spanish Colonial themes to a more contemporary style. Vazquez, who is Zamora’s niece, also has work in the show. She works in the medium of colcha embroidery, and her work is on the theme of Chicana identity and experiences. Lorena Salaz paints retablos, marrying traditional themes of spirituality, community, and place to contemporary subject matter.
“The theme, really, was just bring your A-game and show the work that best represents who you are as a creator at the moment,” Telles says. “That was it.”
Among his own works, Telles is including his quirky but symbolic Mi Amigo The Pigeon (2021), a mixed-media painting depicting a man in a black T-shirt bearing the word “VECINOS” (neighbors). His face is masked by a piñata headdress in the shape of a burro’s head. A pigeon, perched on his right shoulder, is adorned by seven festive cones, which Telles included as a reference to the seven blades traditionally depicted piercing the breast of Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows). He based the pigeon’s headdress on the colorful nine-pointed star motif, which is a prevalent piñata design.
The masked figure and his little companion bear elements reflecting cultural traditions intimately connected to the Hispanic Southwest, as well as traditions carried over from Mexico and, before that, from Spain.
“When the pandemic first hit, I had a show at Hecho a Mano. It was supposed to be a solo show. I didn’t get to where I am on my own, so I asked people whose work inspired me to collaborate with me. The idea was that we’re all neighbors in this community.”
To emphasize the importance of the word in relation to a community of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) artists, Telles made T-shirts, like the one in Mi Amigo The Pigeon, and gifted them to the participating artists.
“We’re neighbors. And if we’re going to be neighbors, we’re going to be good neighbors.”
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View the full show here