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Los Angeles County Museum of Art opens first major survey of paintings by Carlos Almaraz
Carlos Almaraz, Echo Park Bridge at Night, 1989, the Buck Collection through the University of California, Irvine, © Carlos Almaraz Estate, photo by Isabella McGrath.


LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Los Angeles County Museum of Art presents the first major survey of paintings by Carlos Almaraz (1941–1989). Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz features 65 works, including mostly paintings and several drawings from the artist’s studio practice. Almaraz was legendary during his lifetime, initially as a political activist and a cofounder of Los Four—among the first Chicano artist collectives to emerge in Southern California in the 1970s—and ultimately as a visionary studio artist whose compelling images convey a deep psychological impact. Almaraz first became an activist through his work with the United Farm Workers, painting banners for union rallies. Among his most visible works from this period were a number of public murals in East Los Angeles that depicted the Chicano civil rights struggle. By the end of the decade, however, Almaraz felt constrained by his role as a cultural worker within the movement and turned his creative aspirations to asserting a far more personal form of expression. Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz explores this personal and artistic transformation.

A highlight of the exhibition is the 24-foot-wide Echo Park Lake nos. 1–4 (1982), a four-paneled painting reminiscent of Claude Monet’s Impressionistic renderings of lily ponds and Parisian parks. This exhibition marks the first time that the four panels have been reunited since 1987. Other highlights include: Almaraz’s studio-based art featuring idyllic scenes of Hawaii (where Almaraz and his family maintained a second home); fiery freeway car crashes richly embued with saturated colors; self-portraits; contemplative scenes of domestic life; and surreal dreamscapes.

Playing with Fire is presented as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative and is curated by Howard N. Fox, LACMA emeritus curator of contemporary art. The exhibition is accompanied by the first full-length monograph of Carlos Almaraz, copublished with DelMonico Books • Prestel.

“Carlos Almaraz is a key figure in Los Angeles’s cultural history," said Michael Govan, LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director. “Almaraz‘s first show at LACMA was the 1974 exhibition Los Four: Almaraz/de la Rocha/Luján/Romero, which presented the work of this important Chicano artist collective co-founded by Almaraz. Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz is an opportunity to acknowledge Almaraz as a solo artist. We are excited to reconsider the artist’s accomplishments in a broader context and offer a new and comprehensive appreciation of the artist’s engagement with complex issues."

Howard N. Fox commented, “While there were small surveys of his art during and soon after his lifetime, and accompanying exhibition catalogues with brief but thoughtful essays, there has been no sustained exploration of his oeuvre.“Nearly three decades following Carlos Almaraz’s untimely death at age 48, now is a propitious time to reexamine his too-brief but always compelling artistic achievements. His life was contradictory and often conflicted, and he reveled in and avidly celebrated the complexities and contradictions of his identity and experiences. Fox added, These connections and slippages, these crossovers and disconnects, these harmonies and dissonances constitute the enduring essence of Almaraz’s art."

The exhibition is organized in five loosely defined thematic sections and includes the following highlights:

In Los Angeles, Delirious and Edenic, Almaraz painted the city as a place of surging visual energy and human activity. Almaraz’s Los Angeles is an alluring, beckoning, and audacious place. Renderings such as Love Makes the City Crumble (1983) are visually jarring and disorderly—fantastical visions of a densely built-up high-rise city. Almaraz’s skyscrapers are hardly the stolid, flat-topped stone, steel, and glass edifices that populate the streets of Los Angeles; his spires bend, twist, and dance with a rapture evoking unbridled bodily abandon. Almaraz’s many pictures of Echo Park stand in dramatic contrast to his rowdy cityscapes. To the artist, Echo Park was a kind of Eden, an urban paradise exemplified in the majestic four-panel vista Echo Park Lake (1982), a tour de force of color and texture. Echo Park is not truly pastoral or rustic at all, but Almaraz treated it throughout his work with an appealing simplicity and charm in a manner that extends the European tradition of the idyll to include his many renditions of this urban greenspace, from golden glowing morning to broadly hued midday to enchanting moonlit nocturnes.

In Bad News, this section explores the artist’s depiction of danger, disaster, and mortality. Almaraz is perhaps best known for his series of fiery car crashes—scenes of colliding automobiles, car explosions, and vehicles careening over the guardrails of elevated Southern California freeways, such as Crash in Phthalo Green (1984), the first Almaraz painting to enter LACMA’s collection. His car crash paintings have darkly comic, even sardonic overtones: their improbable fusion of terrible human disaster with a slyly seductive visual command seems to relegate human suffering to an invisible afterthought. The car crashes join other compelling scenarios, such as runaway trains, houses on fire, and shootouts, reflecting aspects of real troubles plaguing Southern California during a time of turbulent social change. Suburban Nightmare (1983), for example, shows a row of three identical tract houses, each with an identical car parked in front. The middle house is consumed by fire, the flames lighting up the night sky in a cataclysmic rage of color.

Some of the warmest visions that Almaraz presents are scenes of home as seen in the next section Domesticity. A highlight is The Red Chair (1980), a simple picture of an unoccupied room in a old bungalow showing only a dilapidated, overstuffed red velvet easy chair and an end table with a lamp; it is a domestic still life as banal as they come, but simultaneously so saturated with a richness of colors that the room becomes animate with implicit life and spirit. The spatial vacancy is haunted by a narrative of untold possibilities: comings and goings, quiet sojourns, noisy altercation, tranquility, anxiety. In the background the artist’s wife holds their baby. This painting is the loving reflection of a husband and father on the fulfillments of his daily life at home.

In Sexuality and the Erotic, sexuality figures into many of Almaraz‘s works, sometimes symbolically or suggestively, and sometimes openly and explicitly. His ink drawing The Muffing Mask (1972) presents a devil-masked male figure performing oral sex on a female figure. It is likely the artist intended this work not as titillating but rather as a matter-of fact depiction of sexual activity, albeit with a dash of Rabelasian wit in the devil mask. Siesta (1972), another ink drawing, features two men resting in bed, presumably after sex. The Struggle of Mankind (1984) presents a pair of naked male wrestlers in an image highly suggestive of homoerotic engagement. These works of Almaraz’s evince his openness, starting in the early 1970s, to explore sexual themes and sexual fluidity at a time when doing so was both rather daring while also becoming a sociocultural inevitability. Almaraz’s depictions of sex anticipated a time when such imagery would no longer cause a public or political uproar.

Shadowy humanoids and mythic figures—often depicted on stage or an ambiguous dream space—populate many of Almaraz’s most enigmatic and haunted paintings. In Dreams and Allegories a number of these works depict the artist variously as a fool, a clown, a jester, or a trickster. The jaguar-man is another frequent figure that functions as an analogue to the masked figures, one more of the many shapeshifters and mischief-makers in Almaraz’s art. The jaguar, with its natural stealth, strength, and predatory skills, was viewed in some traditional Mesoamerican cultures as a creature that could cross the spiritual and physical realms. In 1987, after learning he had AIDS, Almaraz reprised many of the themes he had previously dealt with in his work, but with a more nuanced and contemplative air. These later paintings are generally marked by a quiet, elegiac mood in their explorations of the iconography of death: skulls, prone bodies, angels and devils, all yoked with imagery of passage and departure. The central image in Tree of Life (1987), for example, is a blue tree surrounded by an array of figures, including a woman serving a goblet of wine, a man wearing only a hat and briefs, and a harlequin figure. At the very bottom of the picture, almost as if it were a visual rivet tying everything together, is a death’s head. The composition is a joyous declaration of lively existence, with a memento mori—a reminder of death—at its root.






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