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Resurrecting Alfredo de Batuc

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by Pancho Lipschitz

Bat Sun Moon by Alfredo de Batuc
Imagine you are an artist with a delicate line and a visual vocabulary developed over decades that you bring to everything from small sketches to wall-sized murals. Now imagine that you wake up one morning and your hands start to feel numb; within a day your body is paralyzed by a rare disease called Guillain–Barré syndrome in which the immune system attacks the nerves. Suddenly, you are not worried about art, you are laying in a hospital bed concerned about how you are going to feed, clothe and bathe yourself.

What sounds like a TV movie of the week was reality for Alfredo de Batuc, a Mexican-born artist who was active in Los Angeles art scene in the ’90s and early 2000s. His Dolores del Rio mural in Hollywood has been reproduced around the world and his paintings, often with the face of a moon or the outline of the Los Angeles city hall, are instantly recognizable. We sat down for coffee in Atwater Village, what Alfredo calls the “Left Bank of Los Angeles,” to talk about his work, his history and his ten-year battle to recover the vital connection between his brain and his hand.

Pancho Lipschitz: What is your first aesthetic memory?
Alfredo de Batuc: My first reaction to visual art was when I saw an illustration in one of my older sister’s books of a cube. It must have been from one of her math or geometry classes. I noticed that these simple lines gave the illusion of a three-dimensional object. It really made an impact on me and I tried to reproduce that on my own. In a very crude manner I tried to join two lines. I did it, and in my view it was a major accomplishment. I showed it to my sister and she was totally unimpressed. I wanted to tell her that what I was trying to do was create a three-dimensional object, but I did not have the words. I was probably pre-kindergarten, something like that. Ever since, I have been trying to do work that conveys the illusion of three-dimensionality.

PL: How old were you when you came to Los Angeles?
AdB: I was 25. I came on a tourist visa. I had been here before. I was highly motivated to see The Last Tango in Paris by Bertolucci, because it was not going to be shown in my town in Mexico. So I came here for that reason. And later, I came back to develop my art, because where I was living there was not much going on.

PL: So how did you get involved with Self-Help Graphics?
AdB: I was living with my aunt in Boyle Heights and the first day I was here I immediately ran into Self-Help Graphics. I guess when you have that kind of frequency you detect the other ones. So immediately I discovered Self-Help Graphics and started talking with Carlos Bueno. Carlos Bueno was one of the people who introduced Dia de los Muertos to Los Angeles because he came from the part of Mexico where that’s celebrated. So I started going there more and more frequently and became more and more involved.

PL: There’s a print you did of Emiliano Zapata naked from the waist down and most shockingly, wearing clogs. Can you talk about that print because it seems that the image of Zapata is almost more sacred than the Virgen de Guadalupe.
AdB:. I combined some elements of the Virgen de Guadalupe with a hero; a real historical figure like Emiliano Zapata who is the most authentic representative of the ideals of the revolutionary movement. Another part of that particular image is that, going back to Art History, the Greeks and the Romans honored their gods and their heroes, they would make them gods, and they would represent them nude. So I’m not being disrespectful, I’m honoring a historical figure within the basis of Western Art and a Greco-Roman influence.

PL: Talk about the understanding of an image as an image versus what it represents.
AdB: I grew up attending elementary Catholic school. So we would go every day to the church to pray there and then we would start class. After elementary school I went to a boarding school for three years, a seminary at the Junior High level. So I’m very familiar with all aspects of images and religion and such. But probably because of my familiarity with the sacred, my sense of respect is different. It’s more internal than external.

The external was less emphasized so we were able to judge the qualities of a religious image, whether it was beautiful or ugly, knowing that it’s just an image and not the deity itself. Other people have this religiosity in which the image is the important thing; the image is the object of reverence and sometimes even worship, which to me has always been foreign. The image is just symbolic.

PL: Can you talk about the Dolores del Rio mural and how you got involved with S.P.A.R.C.?
AdB: Well I answered a call for submissions from S.P.A.R.C., and I was accepted. The reason I chose Dolores del Rio is that I was living in Hollywood at the time and the name of the project was “neighborhood pride.” So I thought of my neighborhood and I researched some history and found out that Dolores del Rio had been a major Hollywood star in the ’20s and ’30s and she made more movies in Hollywood than in Mexico.

I like a lot of art forms that are not a part of the fine art scene, like comic books, movies and orange crate labels. And since the orange crate labels were associated with Southern California because these were orchards here at that same period of time, I decided to use the orange crate label and make the mural similar to that. I used a lot of the flowers that are native to California and used a lot of cactuses that are not necessarily native to Los Angeles, but the Southwest in general. I included two sets of calla lilies that are a direct reference to Imogene Cunningham who at that same period of time was active in Northern California. So instead of using fruits in my orange crate label, I used flowers which are more associated with a woman. And I was honoring a woman so that was kind of the right fit.

PL: I know you are an amateur film historian and in Mexico you started a cinema club. Can you talk about the kinds of films you showed?
AdB: I was going to the University of Sonora and there had been a cinema club before but it had been dormant for a few years and then a group of us started to bring it back. We exhibited movies from Citizen Kane to Pier Paolo Pasolini, Latin-American movies, some from Cuba, Bolivia, Mexican independents, experimental cinema; a lot of documentaries and European films. And we would introduce the movie and then after that conduct a question and answer discussion.

I remember that one of the movies that we had the most screenings of was Citizen Kane which I was doing the introduction for even though I hadn’t seen it. And then I had to get out of there and go do something, class or some student things that I had to do and then I came back to conduct the questions and the comments afterwards. And I did this several times without seeing the movie, but I had read so much about it that people didn’t know that I hadn’t seen the movie and they praised me for my depth of understanding of the movie.

PL: You had a studio in the Victor Clothing building right?
AdB: Yes. And I lived there. That was in the ’90s. We were not supposed to live there but several of us did, and the owner cast a blind eye. Also, we would go for months without paying rent and he would not charge us. And then sometimes, when I had money, I would pay him for three or four, even six months in advance. I would say, “I’m paying you now and I will start paying you again in September.” It was also spooky at night because it was empty. Nobody was walking in the streets. Some homeless pissing, but I never felt afraid. I never felt unsafe.

PL: Who else had a studio there at the time?
AdB: John Valadez was my next door neighbor and then Lawrence Gipe, Lari Pittman and Roy Dowell. But we wouldn’t interact. Well, there are the pecking orders.

PL: And you were hanging out at the Onyx?
AdB: It was probably the only coffee house in L.A. It had started next to the Vista Theater and then it moved to North Vermont. It was two storefronts. One was a coffee house and one was empty with a piano. The empty one was for people who smoked because it was just a room. So I would go there and hang out. There were people like Steve La Ponsie, Gronk, Manuel Ocampo, Mario Calvano, Hassan Jamal, Joshua Jose who later opened the Tribal Cafe.

PL: How has the city changed since you’ve been here?
AdB: Oh in many, many, many ways. One of the things about Hollywood back then was that it was really, slummy; which I loved because it was a big counterpoint to the image of the glitzy Hollywood. You could drive from one part of the city to the other in less than 30 minutes. It was more dangerous. There is less violence now.

PL: Can you speak briefly about the disease?
AdB: I was struck with a severe case of Guillain-Barré syndrome in between the holidays; Christmas-New Year’s 2005. On December 27 it began to manifest, and in less than 24 hours I was totally done. Beginning then, I spent a total of a year and a half in hospitals; after that, another year-and-a-half in a wheelchair. Now, more than nine years since the onset, I use a walker.

Alfredo then pulls out his recent sketch books and hands them to me. I’m almost afraid to open them, but inside the work is beautiful, delicate, playful, emotional and sensual; all the best qualities of the old work. I take some pictures with my crappy cell phone camera as a record of how much he has recovered but also just because they are cool.
 
To see more of Alfredo’s work go to debatuc.com. You can also see a great short film on Alfredo done by Eric Minh Swenson “Alfredo de Batuc: Liberation of an Artist” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cm3SAudUq3I
Pancho Lipschitz is a barrio flaneur and a barrio flan connoisseur. 

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Brooklyn & Boyle is a print and online magazine dedicated to Art & Life in Boyle Heights and Beyond. The publication features Brooklyn & Boyle stories from the Greater Eastside LA arts scene, including but not limited to the neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, City Terrace, East LA, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno, South Pasadena, Cypress Park, Arroyo Seco, Highland Park, and Eagle Rock, places every bit as creative and cultured as one another while aware and active in support of authentic arts and creative projects which support community integrity and respect for the history and heritage of the many Eastside neighborhoods.

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