Roberto Gutiérrez: New York in Black & White

Roberto Gutiérrez, Rooftops of New York, 2017, Sumi Ink, gouache.

by Abel M. Salas

Roberto Gutiérrez is one of only four artists whose work has graced our print edition front page more than once in nine years of modest yet big-hearted micro-publishing experiment. Although criteria for cover art selection are largely undefined, they have never been scattershot. Occasionally tied thematically to a general thread running through an issue, covers have just as often been seasonal or inspired by hallmark calendar holidays.

Some were, I readily admit, heartfelt efforts to express my gratitude to particular artists, including one whose friendship I cherished, another who had not taken sides during a break up between me and a significant other, and one who had never once mentioned the cover in the sixteen years we had known each other.

At one point, I even offered the cover  to a universally admired—and deservedly so—artist who had come to cat sit for me when a death in my family took me out of L.A. He respectfully declined my offer to feature his work on the front page, unfortunately. But then again, he had also taken my former girlfriend's side, during the aforementioned romantic split.

Less frequently, I have been so floored by a specific piece of art, overwhelmed by an artist’s  solo exhibition, or compelled by the lack of recognition or critical attention for an artist who truly warranted it, that I’ve simply had to shuffle the playlist, stop the presses and move something to the back burner. While awkward, such is the price of remaining true to the muse.

Given the preceding considerations, Roberto Gutiérrez has rounded the track as the singular trifecta. Twice. By way of explanation, it is crucial to revisit the first Gutiérrez Brooklyn & Boyle cover, published in June of 2015 and the exhibition from which it was derived. It is equally important to consider the recent Lincoln Heights retrospective of his work in various media as a master of the urban landscape for the last 30 years. The latter exhibition included, it must be pointed out here, a formidable selection of new works inspired by the artist's most recent sojourns to New York.

Exhibited at Plaza de la Raza from December of last year through February of 2018 as part of Roberto Gutiérrez: The Evolution of a Contemporary Artist – Magical Brushstrokes of Metropolitan Landscapes, the New York portion that groundbreaking and epic exhibition was, in fact, the source of the second Gutiérrez cover in those nine years, the wintry, tender Central Park tableaux featured on the front of our March print edition just two months ago.

Taken together, the image from his Eulogy to the 6th Street Bridge exhibit, presented at Ave. 50 Studio in the summer of 2015 which we featured as the first-ever—and only since—black and white cover, and his newest series of works in various media inspired by the streets, alleys, brownstones, factories and rooftops as well as numerous iconic buildings of Manhattan, lead us directly to his even more recent Ave. 50 Studio solo show, New York in Black & White.

Months ago, I posted a response to a new play by Culture Clash on Facebook.  In that mini-social media review, I argued that the cultural elite—the East Coast intellectual, literary, and academic liberal establishment as represented by The New Yorker and similarly staid institutions, was reluctant to accept or believe that a veteran comedy trio like Culture Clash could be as relevant, politically savvy, witty, and intelligent, innovative, edgy and funny as, say, Saturday Night Live or Chicago’s The Groundlings, at their best.

Since then—not because anyone there saw my obscure post—The New Yorker has featured a review of the “Pacific Standard Time” exhibition of work by Laura Aguilar presented by the Vincent Price Art Museum at East L.A. College and published a foodways piece by Gustavo “Ask A Mexican” Arellano. A little more than a month ago, the nearly century-old, internationally acclaimed periodical also ran a stirring feature on photographer George Rodríguez, who shot celebrities (among them Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison) during the late ’60s and early ’70s as a film studio and record label lenser. When not on assignment or on the clock, however, he traversed the East Side, documenting the nascent Chicano movement, capturing stark images of protest and revolution on the streets of East L.A.

What does any of that have to do with Roberto Gutiérrez? It may sound out of character, especially for me, but what if it is just simply about time we learn how to honor Gutiérrez beyond his implicit otherness? I'm not suggesting we need to erase or deny his identity as a Chicano artist. But what if, collectively, we could begin heralding him as an artist first? He is creating new work with a vengeance that belies his status as a septuagenarian, that much is certain. And perhaps that should be enough. The collection of black-and-white images depicting New York in Sumi ink, gouache, permanent ink, acrylic and graphite assembled for New York in Black & White virtually bristled in the absence of pigment.

From work inspired by a long desired dream-come-true visit to France, work subsequently inspired by a cinematic, personal memory-infused noir take on the L.A. of his own childhood in the 1940s and, most recently, paintings and drawing culled from late life trips to New York, are irrefutably, poignantly masterful. While Gutiérrez is undoubtedly familiar with The New Yorker, we assume he is not a regular reader or a subscriber. He is even less likely to be on social media, for that matter.

However, if the works comprising New York in Black & White were each reduced by a factor of 12, a serious argument could be made that they would look more at home in the pages of that venerable bastion of arts and letters than even in their short-lived stasis on 24” x 36” artist paper floated under glass in black wooden frames, the odd unframed black and white acrylic on canvas among them not withstanding.

Like Gutiérrez, Manuel López Aguilar grew up on L.A.’s East Side. Also an artist, he was accepted at a prestigious art school in Chicago while still a teenager. He is roughly 40 years younger than Gutiérrez. Likewise probably not a regular reader or consumer of the liberal East coast literary and cultural press, López describes his own work as a distillation of ideas and approaches Gutiérrez, whom he considers his “maestro,” has come personify for him.

“It’s all there, goofy perspective, crooked lines and all. Trip out on this,” he said, pointing to a piece on the wall at the opening reception for New York in Black & White and pulling up a photo on his cell phone which would establish a comparison to the uneven and intentionally wonky graphite lines in one of his own drawings depicting a welcome mat on an wooden porch floor. He then referred an outdoor cement staircase in the elder artist’s piece before him.

Zooming in on the lines of the drawing saved on his cell via Instagram, López marveled at the almost unbelievable and uncanny pattern repetition. The lines in his doormat appeared to be an exact replica of the lines that composed the staircase in the piece by Gutiérrez, one López has never seen before.

It could be that Gutiérrez represents an inevitable shift that, in an ideal future, could portend the re-purposing of Trump’s proposed border wall construction materials to build guest houses in Ithaca for visiting poets from Boyle Heights or bungalows in Cayuga Heights reserved for a residency exchange program with artists from L.A.’s El Sereno. Of course, shelters for the homeless in either city could be built with anything left over.

Gutiérrez, in this re-imagined universe, becomes, then, the advance reconnoitering art emissary who has politely scouted the veritable and venerable font of standards governing form, technique, aesthetics and taste imposed from on high, meaning the Eastern seaboard Olympus.

His distinct, slightly off-kilter rendering of New York’s architectural nuances is both neo-Expressionist and 19th Century Impressionist. It would easily win favorable comparison to studies by graduate school faculty contemporaries at Cooper Union. Shadows and light and brick and metal staircase fire escapes echo with voices of lost souls found and the pleasant sound of unfinished dreams being resumed. Welcome to a New York in Black & White that Angelenos of every hue and color can appreciate.


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