Who Will Remember

Among our favorite new artists on the scene in Sacramento is Rafael Delgado.  He has recently moved in to a new studio a 12th and S streets.  We first became aware of him and his work at a studio near La Raza Galleria.  Though the arc of his artworks and of his career are very different from that of someone that I knew early on, he does remind me of the artist (and teacher) Benny Barrios.  I first met Benny when he was the owner of an eponymous art gallery on 2nd Street in what is now called “Old Sacramento”.  In those days, the City of Sacramento had somehow managed to condemn, and then to tear down almost every transient hotel and bar and shop between I Street and L Street and between 6th Street and 3rd Street.  This was pursued under the rubric of “re-development”.   Sacramento  had been the hub for the canning of many crops such as tomatoes and asparagus.  Libby-McNeil- Libby was a fixture along Stockton Boulevard between Alhambra Boulevard and 34th Street, both to the eye and, during tomato season, to the nose.   There were other canneries such as Bercut-Richards on Richards Boulevard.  The canning industry attracted vast numbers of workers who fulfilled the role of transient worker, then moved on to the next crop.  During their stay in the Sacramento area, the transient workers worked hard during the day and, in the evening, had some time for his or her family, or drank hard, gambled, lived the fleshy life with the many whores who offered their wares on the streets and in the bars and barber shops in the area that is under consideration, or wrote poetry or letters to those whom they had left behind in Mexico.

From this tableau, Benny Barrios drew inspiration.  He drew the older buildings, most of which were soon to be torn down.  He drew the older whores, most of whom would soon grow too old.  Benny made a unique recording of so much of which was the history and transition of the frontier town, and the then agri-mechanical phase of the city, and finally, the results of there being so many “transient” hotels and so few who required those facilities.

Benny Barrios’ works were powerful.  They had a certain aura.  In a way, they were crudely done.  He would take all of the mixed paint left over on his palette board and smear it on the canvas or board of his next painting.  He explained the process to me as being the “economy of painting”.  At the time, I thought of that statement as being one of a person who had mis-understood the English translation.  Benny had grown up in the Second Street area of Sacramento.  It was a tough neighborhood, and he had had to learn how to fight, and to win, against boys who were much older and much bigger.  It is, perhaps, for that reason that he chose to name his art gallery the Two Street Gallery, rather than the Second Street Gallery.  Today, I have a better sense of Benny Barrios.  The bit about the “economy of painting” was his little joke.  Callow youth that I was, I didn’t get the pun.  Shame on me … I love puns.

His own paintings reflected the world around him … the cheap hotels intended for workers who would only be there for a few weeks, the braceros, up from Mexico to work with their hands (hence the name “braceros from the Spanish word brazo meaning “arm”) in agriculture, the saloons, cheap wine and whores who gave relief from the tedium of work in the fields.  Benny captured all of this in oil on canvas.  Yet, who knows of him now, some fifty years on?  There has been some recent attention to this man, and well deserved.

This evening, November 20, 2011, I attended a closing reception for three Chicano artists at the oddly-named Beatnik Studios (www.beatnik-studios.com) at 2471 17th Street in Sacramento.  The show will remain up until November 23.  The three artists featured were Benny Barrios, Ed Rivera, and Esteban Villa, a founding member, along with José Montoya, of the Rebel Chicano Art Front (RCAF), which later morphed into the Royal Chicano Air Force.  Sadly, Ed Rivera had died just before the show was to open.  At some point in the evening, Esteban called the attendees in to a semi-circle to discus the works in the show.  He began with an acknowledgement that Barrios had been both an inspiration to him and a mentor.  RCAF was undeniably political, and Barrios had walked with César Chávez in support of farm workers rights.  It is possible to see the changes in Barrios’ painting only if you can see his earlier work.  Sadly, images of his work from the past are not available on the Internet.  I am hopeful of changing that.  Apparently, it was Benny’s habit to photograph much of his finished works, at least before sending them to the Crocker Art Gallery Rental Gallery.  One such painting was a part of the stable of art once offered by the Crocker for rent, and was stolen and last traced to somewhere in Florida.  Benny made a reproduction of it from a photograph.

Benny’s early interests in art began with drawing version of comic strips from newspapers and comic books such as may have existed in his youth.  His is around eighty-seven today.  Born in the mid 1920s, it would have mostly been in newspapers.  He used his family as models to hone his skills at portraiture.  In the service, he painted pictures of clouds on B-24s.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Barrios brush was applied increasingly to the subject of social justice for immigrants and particularly to those employed in agriculture.  Titles such as “Hiding Illegals” broaches the subject of immigration control.  Other titles such as “Union Battle”, “Pesticide”, “Long Day”, address grave subjects.  “Border Line” depicts a Mexican overcoming the barrier of a barbed-wire fence.  “Backyard Victory Garden” is a salute to the “black eagle” symbol of the United farm Workers.  In a final sculptural effort by Barrios titled “Stoop Labor”, short-handled hoes are stuck in the unyielding ground, represented as a .    In a painting that I recall from the 1960s, A tall and slender Mexican farm laborer is shown enjoying a large transistor radio, held up to his ear.  The dominant color in the painting is the yellow of the blazing sun.  The radio that he was able to afford brings him solace after working a full and tiring day.  The works of this kind remain hidden in the homes of those who purchased them.  Often they were bought by the wives of legislators from throughout California, or of local doctors and lawyers.  These paintings remain hidden within walls of private homes.  If I may venture a guess, they are in the homes of Anglos, for the most part.  It may simply be a function of cash.  Though the artistic endeavors of artists of any stripe are equally important (or unimportant) to both Anglo and Mexican cultures, it generally falls to the wealthy to buy and support the arts.  There are those among us who eschew the purchase of SUVs and trips to Europe in favor of the purchase of paintings, which do not lend themselves so much to public display and braggadocio.  The second and third leg of the exhibition, ed Rivera and Esteban Villa, may be discussed in due course.

There could be found, in Barrios Gallery, the works of many artists whose art profoundly reflected the world at that time:  Maxine DalBen, Raymond Rowley King, Sister Mary Corita, Kurt Fishback, Victor Heady, Ruth Rippon. Alexander Nepote, Joseph Ullery, James Estey, and Fred Ball, to name a few.  These were the powerful artists of that time and in this region in Northern California.  Their works were seen as desirable.  They “meant” something then.  Today, that meaning is in doubt.  Newer artist have come along and brought with them new visions.  There are those among them who have been added to our own collection.  But, what of the past?  Do the works of the artists of the previous generation no longer have any meaning or value?

It is a problem that seems unique to our time.  For the artists of today, who want to become well know for their art works, the tendency for older artists to diminish in importance and for newer ones to blink brightly for but a short time (perhaps a few decades), then also to diminish, is a problem in common.

For the collector too, the question of the remembrance of the past is of great interest.  We cannot all “invest” in the works of Renoir or of van Gogh at an early stage.   We know of them only because they are in the collections of certain museums … and, more particularly, because images of those works have been provided to publishers which, in turn, made it seem that those particular collected works were singular in importance because of the inclusion of such works in their books.

The impressions of students of the Arts are informed, mostly by text books, that perpetuate the notion that those, in those textbooks, images are of the ‘important’ works.  From the historical perspective, they are important.  But, they are not what art is today.  Those books do not include every thing that followed.  They could not do that.


1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Deart alan and carol, I am very pleased to meet you and know of your web site. Wow! very interesting. I like looking at the art and of the different time periods. yes a blog about me and your paintings would be of interest. I hope to talk with you again at an opening. Mr. pedersen I do have some memories of you at dean moniz gallery. Lots of interestng art.

    sincerely jeff nebeker

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