Aqui y Alla Episode 2

It is a great pleasure to be able to dedicate the second episode of Aquí y Allá to Carlos Almaraz and Elsa Flores. Carlos and Elsa were two of the most influential artists of their time in Los Angeles, and important representatives of the Chicano Movement. This exhibition represents about a third of Fisher's holdings of their works; we hope it triggers an appetite for more. Although nothing satisfies like seeing art in person, this virtual exhibition still gives a strong hint of the color and passion and purpose both artists represent.

Untitled (Male and Female profiles over street scene) (1989) by Carlos Almaraz (Mexican American, 1941 - 1989)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Fisher Museum of Art's Connection

Elsa Flores and Carlos Almaraz figure largely in our permanent collection at the USC Fisher Museum. Both artists were part of a 700-piece donation by Dr. Eugene Rogolsky, a great fan of both Elsa and Carlos. Gene was Carlos’s physician at the end of his life and they were devoted to each other. This exhibition is in memory of Carlos who died in 1989, and of Gene who died in 2020. And, it is in honor of Elsa who has so carefully protected her husband’s legacy since his untimely death. Elsa and Carlos were married in 1981 after knowing each other for seven years. They built a life together around the Chicano movement to which they were dedicated, to art, and to their friends and family. Both of their bodies of work are intensely alive, albeit in different ways that I hope will become apparent in this mini exhibition. The documentary film Carlos Almaraz:Playing with Fire was made by Elsa as an homage to her husband and was listed as the #1 art documentary of 2020 by Artnews. Streaming on Netflix it demonstrates her great finesse as a filmmaker. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQN0Q7fYNEk

Twins (1980) by Elsa Flores (American, b. 1955)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Elsa Flores

Elsa Flores was born in Las Vegas, Nevada, June 5, 1955. At a young age, she moved to Los Angeles with her family. Flores’ love of the rural environment in which she was raised influenced her passion for landscape painting, and unsurprisingly nature is an element that frequently appears in her work. She also loves the human figure and represents it throughout her career, often integrating images of people in powerful natural settings. The multi-talented Elsa Flores is considered one of the great artists of the Chicano movement, creating work in photography, printmaking, painting, and film.

Twins, from 1980, is one of the few photographs of Elsa’s that we have in Fisher's collection. Two young women, theatrically made up, sit together at what appears to be a vanity table. They make no attempt to differentiate themselves from each other (except for their socks), even sitting in the same pose. Their somber expressions make one wonder if they are also sharing the same thoughts.

Dancers (1985) by Elsa Flores (American, b. 1955)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Dancers, five years later in 1985, is a painted photo that also has a theatrical flair. Paint is slathered on with what can only be called delicious brushstrokes. The two women most in our view are painted in pinks and blues and bracket the main figure in the center, defined by oranges and a touch of pink. Arms akimbo, shown only from the back, they are confident women facing perhaps a live audience, all together constituting a brilliant scene where color is the star.

Canoe (1989) by Elsa Flores (American, b. 1955)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Canoe, from 1989, is devoid of figures. A gorgeous naturescape featuring a canoe with a subtle aura in the water and what appear to be hills and a dark red sunset in the background. Elsa shows herself here to be a committed colorist, subtly repeating the blue of the canoe throughout the picture. It is yet another mood that she is painting, and compared to the two previous works, this one is more melancholy and more mysterious.

Red Chair Vigil (Standing FIgure) (1990) by Elsa Flores (American, b. 1955)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Red Chair Vigil (Standing Figure) a monotype from 1990 reveals a curious change in Elsa’s work. Taking on a mystical, almost Blakean ambience, the sole figure holds a flaming object, seems to have a halo, and appears to be surrounded by flames. We almost feel as if we see the inside of this nude figure as much as the outer person. Although ostensibly otherworldly, in the end Elsa brings us back to the domestic, making a point of painting in the corner the red chair that must have then been in their home, which now has its permanent home in our collection in the painting by Carlos titled Red Chair.

Blue Boy (1991) by Elsa Flores (American, b. 1955)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Blue Boy from the very next year is an intimate and immediate portrait. Hot colors swirl around the face of the subject. Is it Carlos? Is the blue a suggestion of the subject’s state of mind? The highly activated background with the unidentified forms that almost suggest enormous tear drops parenthesize the head, almost projecting danger.

Blue Mask (1992) by Elsa Flores (American, b. 1955)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Blue Mask, from 1992, takes us into an almost surreal state. A floating (again blue) mask that appears to be generalized and not an individual portrait floats calmly in a highly activated background, an almost electrified field. The disembodied blue form, almost swimming below the head, is countered by the yellow squiggles to its side and a base that barely stabilizes an extremely dynamic image.

Spirtual Fisherman (1992) by Elsa Flores (American, b. 1955)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Also from 1992, Spiritual Fisherman brings us back to the metaphysical, a state for which Elsa seems to have recurring affinities. The fisherman with his harpoon emerges from the waters, not with a fish, but with a halo effect. The sunset behind him is glorious but calm, and the waters, although dynamic, are not roiled. Seeming like a god, this fisherman is emotional in his tranquility, but also in his understated sense of foreboding.

Beach Fire (1993) by Elsa Flores (American, b. 1955)USC Fisher Museum of Art

The next year, 1993, Beach Fire continues and even amplifies the mood of Spiritual Fisherman. This is one of Elsa’s great marriages of her love for the human figure and the natural world, as well as her lifelong affair with the heavily loaded brush. Here we see a kind of hymn to darkness and light: the light of the fire (mesmerizing) and the light of the moon on the water. Once again we have the aura effect, this time mostly but not exclusively around the standing nude male figure. The man has what might be a broken aura, but it is probably the reflection of the firelight on his skin. Elsa’s love of mystery and theatricality is at its most glorious here.

The Kiss (1996) by Elsa Flores (American, b. 1955)USC Fisher Museum of Art

The Kiss, created in 1996, is a hand- pulled linoleum print of two angels (haloes again) kissing. Although angels are technically boys, these angels are what we would now think of as gender fluid. Even though the image is only made with blue and white, it radiates light somehow and still falls within my evaluation of Elsa as a significant colorist. Perfectly united, these two figures eschew melancholy, emanating instead joy in love.

Carlos Soho, 1980 (1997) by Elsa Flores (American, b. 1955)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Carlos Soho, a painted photo, bears two dates in our inventorying system: 1980 and 1997. That is because the photo was taken by Elsa in 1980 during a trip to NYC, shot in a friend's apartment and enlarged and painted in 1997. Carlos, who early in his career spent important years in SoHo, is now shown in a studio setting. This is all urban all the time. No sense of nature, just a very loving memory by Elsa of her husband, perhaps begun before they were married and finished long after he had passed away, which possibly explains the extended engagement with the work. Even though this is Carlos in an interior scene, it is suffused with light, Elsa’s specialty. Furthermore, the two dates of this work possess their own ghostliness: the evanescent outlines around his body suggests a state of being and leaving, becoming and moving away. He turns away as he talks on the phone, really not there.

Mau Y Que Aloha Tat Back from the Hawaiian Homegirl Giclee Series (2004) by Elsa Flores (American, b. 1955)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Mau y Que Aloha Tat-Back from the Hawaiian Homegirl Giclee Series is from 2004, a reference to Hawaii where Elsa now lives, and she and Carlos also lived together for a while. A photograph that honors the art of tattooing, it reveals the unending creativity of Elsa as she works with many media. Once again, she depicts a figure, apparently on the sand of a beach. It is a moody figure, self-absorbed, captured by Elsa in a moment of introspection.

The Red Chair (1980) by Carlos Almaraz (Mexican American, 1941 - 1989)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Carlos Almaraz

Carlos is considered one of the most important if not the most important Chicano artist.  His work is an emblem of the Movement, but as with all great art, both represents it and transcends it.  Carlos’s art is about passion and paint.  The body of work that Dr. Eugene Rogolsky donated to our permanent collection was from the last decade of Carlos’s life. He was fully formed as an artist.  We are fortunate to have another forty or so works by him and will be showing them over the coming years. Carlos is an artist of the Movement, surely, of Los Angeles certainly,  but also of the universality of human experience.

Red Chair, 1980, is the same chair that his wife Elsa Flores painted nine years later in the corner of a picture as mentioned earlier in this episode. Here, though, the chair is the main character, not a bit player. This red chair was in their bedroom and the subject of many paintings and photographs by Carlos and Elsa. In this work it sits in a gorgeously painted room in their home, with colors that seem to be light itself. A lamp electrifies the yellow. The chair is inviting, planted on a green floor and surrounded by walls and a door in vibrant shadings of yellow and blue. In this case, the human figure, glimpsed through a portal, barely described stands at a window in the pink bathroom, or what might be a kitchen, the pink of the room, as a surround. This is a domestic scene unlike any we have ever seen.

Coffee cup, Man in hat (1981) by Carlos Almaraz (Mexican American, 1941 - 1989)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Coffee Cup, Man in Hat from the next year, 1981 has an entirely different effect, but like the Red Chair an inanimate object – the coffee cup—gets pride of place. Seemingly a scene of a studio (Carlos’s?) a couple seems to be walking away from a spate of canvases of what is so often Carlos’s subject: the city. The coffee cup, entirely too large to be “just a cup” is destabilized, as is the rest of the scene. Two figures, a man in a hat and a woman walk away from the scene, but not, apparently, into anything any more stable. In the morass ahead of them are more canvases, but also a skull and another almost god-like figure. Could this be a kind of memento mori? A deliberation on the passing of all things?

California Theatre (1982) by Carlos Almaraz (Mexican American, 1941 - 1989)USC Fisher Museum of Art

California Theater, painted in 1982, was the theater that Carlos and Elsa could see from their Spring Street studio window on the other side of the block long studio, on Main Street. Carlos used theater scenes often in his work. It has a different tone from the previous works we are showing here. Truly an urban image, one sees a stable neoclassical theater with figures in attendance at what could be an opera or a play. The neon-lighted structure in front could be a subway stop or a restaurant. Almost looking like a Parisian post-Impressionist painting from the late nineteenth century, it has none of the unease of the previous works. But the color never stops! The purple animated background, the setting for this theater with its classical architecture, reminds that this is not a classic scene. And the glow around the other structure (the subway stop or restaurant) reminds us that this is Carlos Almaraz, the master of light from Los Angeles.

Echo Park at Night (1983) by Carlos Almaraz (Mexican American, 1941 - 1989)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Just one year later, 1983, delivers what has become understood to be one of Carlos Almaraz’s most loved subjects, Echo Park at Night. In this little painting he gives us Echo Park as a place of perfect urban peace, devoid of the pandemonium often thought of as surrounding it. This is Echo Park as place of rest and recreation. It is a dream of Echo Park where nothing disturbs the beauty: no noise, no annoying human activities. Again, almost reminiscent of Post-Impressionist painting in Paris, but purely original at the same time, we are looking at the perfect blend of nature, but now in a very built Los Angeles environment. We see nothing of surrounding buildings, just the palm trees and their reflections in the green and pink waters of the lake. A sailboat or maybe two; a car suggesting people on an outing. Finally, the orange moon in the purple and blue starlit sky furthers the dreaminess of the moment.

Dancing Figures (1984) by Carlos Almaraz (Mexican American, 1941 - 1989)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Dancing Figures, painted the next year reminds us of the deep unease that was never eradicated in Carlos’s art. Three figures seem to be running out of a maelstrom. They remind me of Adam and Eve being expelled from a totally chaotic garden. There is not a stilled brushstroke in the painting, like an oil sketch by Peter Paul Rubens. Agitation and fear are what characterizes this important work. Trees seem to be uprooted; the sky is stormy and terrifying. All the while the paint is applied with a ferocity and gestural activity that, if it did mirror Carlos’s inner state, reveals him to have been at best unsettled and even fearful. Notably however, in conversation with Elsa, she said that she sees this as a joyful and romantic scene, while also acknowledging that everyone has a different perception of artworks.

The Wanderer (1987) by Carlos Almaraz (Mexican American, 1941 - 1989)USC Fisher Museum of Art

1987, The Wanderer (a recurring iconic figure of Carlos’s), is yet another delightful urban scene. A man and a dog are striding energetically in a downpour in Los Angeles. The skyline in the background with twinkling lights makes the scene a pleasing one. At the same time there is a single house sitting in the greensward, possibly another park or a front lawn. This painting communicates the domesticity and a bit of tranquility that sometimes enters into Carlos’s works. One would have to be a Los Angeleno to understand that even as this man is getting soaked, a downpour in Los Angeles is a rare and life-giving event. The painting is affectionate and joyful.

Naked Jester (1988) by Carlos Almaraz (Mexican American, 1941 - 1989)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Naked Jester, 1988, brings us a sense of theater. Masked and be-jewelled this beautifully painted muscular, handsome man is an object of fascination and mystery. Is he part of a performance? That would seem to be the case given the great swag of purple drapery to the right of the figure. Or is he an imaginary figure, a meditation of identity: who is that masked man? Although we will never know, this compelling figure painted a year before Carlos’s death pushes us into the realm of dream and perhaps, of inquiry.

City Street Scene (1989) by Carlos Almaraz (Mexican American, 1941 - 1989)USC Fisher Museum of Art

The very year that Carlos died he painted City Street Scene, another scene of rain in Los Angeles with people covering their heads with their umbrellas. In this picture a handsome red boxy car gets center stage with a figure in front of it, seemingly taking his leave of it. Tall buildings bring us to think we are downtown. The rain is streaking down and feels cold as it puddles in the streets. Brush strokes bearing Carlos’s customary verve create a sense of movement in this stilled, presumably parked vehicle.

Greed (1989) by Carlos Almaraz (Mexican American, 1941 - 1989)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Another picture from the last year of Almaraz’s life has a truly horrifying effect. Named Greed from 1989 two dogs are facing each other in rage. They are surrounded by bones in a barren landscape. Is this what humanity comes to in the end: fighting over the dry bones that are left in the world after they have already been picked clean by others, possibly by human beings instead of dogs? Is this a latter-day vision of Ezekiel’s Dry Bones from the Bible? Is Carlos Almaraz asking us what have we done to ourselves to bring out our worst natures?

Lobo (1989) by Carlos Almaraz (Mexican American, 1941 - 1989)USC Fisher Museum of Art

The penultimate painting in our episode, Lobo, from 1989 is again of a dog painted in the last year of Carlos’s life. This is, though, a single mangy dog, wild, without any sense of domestication. Once again we have Carlos’s most animated, passionate, driven brushstrokes. This painting reveals him to be one of the most accomplished painters of our time. This painting goes to the heart of what painting is as a revelation of the soul. How could this ferocious painting be an example of extreme beauty? Because it is about truth telling with all the aesthetic tools an artist could have at hand. It is about everything from draftsmanship to abstraction; about colors so saturated they are meaning unto themselves; about perfect composition. And, about a kind of agony that only the greatest artists could recognize and make us realize is ultimately a shared human condition.

Untitled (Echo Park at Night) (1989) by Carlos Almaraz (Mexican American, 1941 - 1989)USC Fisher Museum of Art

Finally, we get to look at Echo Park at Night, also from 1989. This is not the pacific Echo Park at the beginning of our episode. This view of the park is ominous. A giant cat-like figure to the left is unsettling as it looms over the two male hatted figures in the foreground. The buildings in the background insert themselves in their unbalanced manner. The lamppost pours light but the light does not cast illumination. It almost feels like we are watching an earthquake, either an internal one, or one referring to the state of the city or even civilization.

Credits: Story

Curator: Selma Holo
Assistant Curator: Stephanie Kowalick

This exhibition, as much as it is to honor the artists Carlos Almaraz and Elsa Flores, is a thank you, a love letter to Dr. Eugene Rogolsky. A close and special friend of both Carlos and Elsa, he was also a close friend of mine. When he offered the Fisher Museum his whole collection, the one he talked about to me the most was the large group of works by Carlos and Elsa. He wanted the world to be able to see them. Thanks to the Google Arts and Culture platform the largest possible world is being introduced to their works of art.

I am also grateful to Elsa Flores who fact checked for us at Fisher and has been generous with her time and energy as she shepherds her husband's legacy.

Special thanks to Marcelo Bajo, MB Language Translations.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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