Three Critical Essays
"Los Cielos 2000: The Work of Linda Vallejo,"
Sybil Venegas, art historian, writer and educator at East Los Angeles College
"Notes from The Living Room Couch: A Collector Speaks Out,"
Armando Duron, major supporter and collector of Chicano art of Los Angeles
"Urban Prayers: The Celestial Imagery of Linda Vallejo,"
Reina Prado, cultural activist, educator, and curator in Tucson, Los Angeles and San Francisco
Artist Statement, Biography and Vita
By Sybil Venegas
Help us, help us, help us
Thank you, thank you, thank you
If the sacred ceremonies have taught me anything, they have taught me to ask for guidance (for I don't know everything after all), a profound sense of gratitude for all that I have been blessed with, and a sense of community and belonging which comforts me and tells me that I am not alone.
The Red Road or the Native American spiritual path is both a life long commitment and a beautiful journey, one artist Linda Vallejo knows well. Prayers for guidance and prayers of thanksgiving form the spiritual center of her work. It is also the point of departure for all of her creative endeavors (making art and the business of art) and her life (family, friends and ceremony), and it is on this common ground of Native American spiritual practice that I have been asked by Linda to comment upon her most recent works, Los Cielos/The Heavens and to contribute this essay to her current exhibition at SPARC. So, thank you, Linda for asking me and help me, Grandmother as I write this.
For those who curate exhibitions and/or write about Chicano/a art, the work of Linda Vallejo has been a hard read, at times difficult to categorize, frequently dismissed for a lack of obvious and/or subtle Chicano iconographic influences, and perhaps most often misunderstood in her preference for universal archetypes over the more conventional or recognizable symbolism found in Chicano art. Yet, in much of the literature on Chicano, and particularly, Chicana art, references to the spiritual are common if not standard in discussions of this particular genre of art. Moreover, Chicano art theory has been grounded in the discourse of cultural memory, the resurrection of history, identity and struggle, affirmations of a cultural past often presented in the sacred art forms of altares, milagros, nichos, cajas, ancient, mesoamerican icons, narrative installations and what really amounts to the visualization of a spiritual quest for identity from a colonized population. (See the work of Amalia Mesa-Baines, Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, and Victor Zamudio Taylor).
So, why the confusion? In many ways, the art of Linda Vallejo is very representative of Chicano art, yet is quite unique and distinct in its ability to integrate her personal truth and life experience into a visual whole that defies convention. While throughout the course of her career as an artist, Linda certainly could have inserted the familiar and formulaic iconography found in Chicano art, she chose instead to create imagery drawn from her beliefs about the cosmos, creation and the relationship of women to the earth and how women can find strength, courage, integrity, honor and respect from a relationship with nature and through ceremony. It requires one to go a bit more deeply into the indigenous traditions of Mexico and the Americas, and to locate an understanding of Chicanos within that paradigm. For the most part, art history frames Chicano art within a western paradigm and within the western canon of art.
References to Native American/Mesoamerican/Mexican indigenous practices have been acknowledged and discussed as Œsyncretic, folkloric, mythologizing , mystical, poetic symbols for contemporary struggles, or compared with the indigenist movements in Mexico and Latin America in the 1920s and 30s, most noteably in comparison to the work of Diego Rivera. (While Rivera was most certainly an artistic genius and of tremendous importance in Mexican art history, he was not all that spiritual based upon his biographers tales of his fabulous life.) It is rare that an art historian speaking and/or writing about Chicano art approaches from within an indigenous based perspective, rendering that perspective as legitimate or viable as a western-based one. Too often, one gets lost in the intellectualizing and it is the intellectualizing that silences the spirituality or the true intention of a work of art.
To place her life choices and artistic expression within historical context, Linda Vallejo represents a powerful example of the impact of the Chicano movement on the life of an artist. For Chicanos, embracing the Red Road as a life transforming, spiritual journey and political commitment raises the issue of colonialism, mestizaje and the impact of a divided ancestry, and, ultimately, the powerful impact of the Catholic church, making this a significant leap. Not everyone understands this choice and so it does come with a certain amount of struggle. Because much of the activism of the 1970s was grounded in a Native American/indigenous Mexican world view, in addition to the teachings of medicine people, Chicanos in search of a spiritual path in keeping with their political beliefs traveled the Red Road. Many explored Native American practices, such as the sweat lodge ceremony, but found it difficult to reconcile their foundational beliefs. For others, Chicano sweat lodge circles incorporated Mexican tradition, making it a more familiar home for spiritual practice, while for others, transitioning from a Catholic, Protestant or even atheistic belief system was less problematic, in that they were soulfully ready to take that step. Thus, beginning in the 1970s, Chicano sweat lodge circles emerged throughout the United States, introducing the Chicano community to the Red Road and an alternative approach to political struggle. And, like Linda Vallejo, many artists who chose this path, began to integrate elements of ceremony into their visual expression. It is an interesting conversation, to say the least, if not the subject for a more formal, art historical study, something that needs to be done.
To practice indigenous traditional ceremony on a regular basis, to practice as a way of life is to become very conscious of Mother Earth, the sacredness of water and the elements. It is to understand that the four directions, East, West, North and South are sacred points that orient us to wholeness of our spirit, while relying upon the breath of our ancestors to hear our prayers for guidance, healing, and of gratitude. By participating in ceremony, one feels much more connected to the universe, resulting in a life intimately integrated with the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, the elements, nature and all living creation, the four legged, the two legged as well as the winged, the creepers and the crawlers.
Before we learned all of the above, Linda and I met in 1977 when we came to work for Sister Karen Boccalero and Self Help Graphics. Both of us, in our late 20s had recently received graduate degrees and were returning to our communities to work in arts education. Linda was hired by Karen to work on The Barrio Mobile Art Studio, a traveling art van that went to schools in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights to teach culturally relevant art lessons. I was hired as Karen¹s administrative assistant, coordinating Self Help¹s public programming. There, along with other Chicano artists, we essentially made history, creating a gallery space, curating exhibitions, writing about and producing art, and participating in the evolution of Self Help Graphics¹ now well known Dia de los Muertos event. Recently, as Linda and I reminiced about our days at Self Help Graphics we discovered neither one of us had any idea at the time how significant and relevant our time with Self Help Graphics would be in our lives and our careers.
While at Self Help Graphics, Linda began to explore Aztec and Maya dance with Flores De Aztlan, a teaching, dance troupe that performed traditional Native American and Chicano ceremonies throughout California. This was the beginning of a life long practice of ceremony, which eventually led her to sweat lodge communities.
As a result of many years of indigenous practice and training, Linda has become a supportive member of many spiritual communities and has participated in traditional ceremony in Arizona, South Dakota and throughout California.
During the past two decades, Linda¹s work, as both an emerging artist, and now as a well established, professional artist, has reflected her dual experiences as a woman and Chicana living in the late twentieth century, whose work is centered in the ancient Indigenous traditions of Mexico and the Americas, yet speaks to the contemporary world. As an emerging artist in the early 80s, Linda began exploring relationships to nature and the spiritual legacy of her Mexican heritage with three dimensional, mixed media constructions, from which evolved her ŒTree People¹ series where human forms were created from small trees, leaves and branches. In the 1990s, Linda¹s Tree People evolved into the series she called, "Woman of Love and Integrity," which became the foundation for her current series, Los Cielos/The Heavens. Here, the female form as symbol of the earth speaks to the hopes and dreams, as well as feelings of loss and lonliness many women experience, and how connecting to Mother Earth can heal an empty spirit.
Los Cielos/The Heavens normal' is a reflection of Linda¹s love of indigenous spiritual community and her personal healing through ceremony and nature. While this has been at the center of her work for the past twenty years, Los Cielos takes us inside the indigenous spirit of the Americas. Evocative of ceremony and the feelings one experiences upon making ceremony with community and the ancestors, these paintings have a primal impact on their viewers. They are familiar images that manifest creation, touching that fundamental human need for the sacred. However, in Los Cielos, the heavens are anthropomorphised into a female aspect of the creator; a benevolent Grandmother watching over us. These paintings are beautiful prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving. They are visual reminders that we are not alone. They are the unseen, yet very real presence of our ancestors, watching us, holding us up, helping us, cradling us as we move through our lives on earth.
In a more art historical analysis, Los Cielos are surrealistic skyscapes, where the conceptual orientation is one grounded in a Native American/Mesoamerican sensibility. Here, the earth, the sky, the moon, the sun, the clouds and the human body visually speak to a cosmic memory of a path that grants us the ability to look at ourselves, to reflect in light and consciousness and ultimatly the will to live with a good heart and in a good way. In the Aztec language, the word Ilhuicatl, was translated as Cielo, meaning sky or heaven in Spanish. However, the word had much greater meaning than that which the Spanish priests, who did most of the translating, understood. To the Aztecs, Ilhuicatl meant Cosmos, a much more profound concept than sky or heavens. In this conception of the cosmos, the creator was a dual creative power which manifested all oppositions, such as negative and positive, night and day, cold and hot, wet and dry, water and fire, life and death, female and male, and, mother and father. As a result, everything on earth was a model of this cosmos, especially the human body, which ultimately represented the center of the universe on earth. (See the work of Alfredo Lopez-Austin and David Carrasco) Perhaps the most evocative of these concepts in Los Cielos are the paintings, "Madre Celestial" and "Reflecting Pool," where we see the female human body as a model of the universe, cradling the earth, reflecting on Mother Earth as a means to look at ourselves.
According to Aztecs, the painter was of utmost importance in society, because he/she was the master of the symbolism. More importantly however, before an artist began to paint it was necessary that they learn how to converse with their heart, to become one with a heart rooted in God. ( Miguel Leon Portilla, Aztec Thought and Culture, University of Oklahoma Press, p. 172) With Los Cielos, Linda Vallejo has certainly attained this status. She is an artist.
The good painter is a Toltec, an artist
(She) creates with red and black ink,
With black water
The good painter is wise,
God is in her heart.
She puts divinity into things;
She converses with her own heart.
She knows the colors, she applies them and shades them;
she draws feet and faces,
She puts in the shadows, she achieves perfection.
She paints the colors of all the flowers,
As if she were a Toltec. (M. Leon-Portilla, p. 172)
All My Relations,
Sybil Venegas, September, 2000
Sybil Venegas is an art historian, writer and educator. She is a professor of Chicano Studies at East Los Angeles College, where she teaches courses in Mexican and Chicano art, Religion in Mesoamerica and Mexican and Chicano history. She has written several articles on Chicana art and artists and her research on El Dia de los Muertos is the topic of her publication, The Day of the Dead in Aztlan: Chicano Variations on Life, Death and Self Preservation. She lives in Los Angeles.
By Armando Duron
Each of us is obsessive about something. Each of us collects--for aesthetic, or utilitarian or other purposes. From wood for the fire to survive, to Timothy Dahlmer memorabilia to satisfy a macabre fascination, to a painting from the Bellagio Gallery because there is $10 million available to spend, or while in search for one of the millions of other objects hovering around the center of these extremes, each of us is driven by a need for some material thing.
Going through the objects left behind by someone who is recently deceased immediately makes one wonder what that person must have been thinking to preserve such things. Likewise, why do I preserve what I preserve? If I were to imagine myself dead, would the reasons I have left behind such objects made of so much canvas and paper be readily apparent? Would they mean anything--anything at all? Certainly, they could not mean the same things to even the most kindred spirit. There are after all different "motives" which could be attached to the same object: functionality, emotional pull, monetary value, aesthetic reasoning. Aesthetic reason? In this age of objective rationality, even aesthetics have to have a reason. If I were to die tomorrow what would be found is easy enough to catalog, but my meaning would mostly die with me.
When we collect-whatever it is we collect-we do so in part because we have appointed ourselves as the preservers of certain needs, dreams, melancholy, capital, memory or misery. We convince ourselves that we know something no one else knows and that it is our duty to preserve it in the form of our collection for those in the present, or in the future, that do not have our "special" knowledge.
If our perceived special knowledge is that our collection will have great monetary value, then we are collecting as an investment. But if we are collecting for other reasons such as to let others know why we feel what we feel-if we can convey such a concept merely by letting someone else see what we have seen-then we are collecting dreams. Then it may be true, as Borges wrote, "the dreams of one man is part of the memory of all."i If we collect to preserve for others the culture that composes a people's collective being, we do so to share with others our people's experiences, our memories.
It was recently written that if one controls people's memory, one controls their dynamism, their experience and their knowledge of previous struggle.ii From its dogmatic stance, one might be tempted to conclude from this statement that art is war by other means. But I prefer the less confrontational approach taken by Arthur C. Danto when he wrote "we serve the future best by preserving what connects us with our own interests; the question is immediately raised: Who are 'we"?"iii It was my need to be included in the "we" that first led me to collect Chicano art.
As a collector I am not limited by the objectivity expected of art historians and critics. I collect to explain to myself, not others. I am mindful of my responsibility to preserve, to conserve, to properly frame and to present the works in favorable light. As a collector of Chicano art, I am passionate by definition--there being no resale market to speak of. It is an obsession very few are cursed/blessed with. I can remain true to what I like without the pretense of objectivity. Perhaps, a collector can bring a breath of fresh air to what often appears to be a rather austere discourse. It is my hope that I will do that in the following words.
I do not recall when I met Linda Vallejo. It seems as if I have always known her art. I was familiar with Linda's works long before I ever met her. I had seen her paper and wood sculptures and masks, with their feathers, gnarled and knotted branches, seaweed, papier mache, plastic objects, shells, metal and other materials. But it took me a very long time to actually acquire one of Linda's pieces. Frankly, at first they confounded me. What would I do with a piece of wood with copper-colored paint on it, or a mask with a beard of seaweed, or a delicate mixed-media construction on arches paper? Now, I wish I had one, or two or three or each of these types of works.
Linda's art is among the most indigenous-based of any of the Chicano artists of Los Angeles. Her art works over the past twenty-five years evoke the spirit of a Meso-American shaman chronicling the story of her people's creation and journey through transcendent time and space, especially its women. Yet Linda has mostly been excluded from too many important Chicano art exhibitions for not being Chicano enough and has been likewise excluded from non-Chicano exhibitions for being too Chicano. Some have complained that her work is not easy to categorize. That need to categorize in order to understand, is perhaps one of the problems with today's art establishment-a practice too many Chicanos are more than willing to emulate. And yet I find it quite easy now to at least categorize Linda's work as unique, original and totally engrossing. Her visual language may disturb some viewers because it transcends mere notions of linear nature. As for me, her work makes me loose my balance one moment and makes things much clearer the next.
While Linda's work does not present an outwardly political message, or incessantly repetitious iconography, its content and meaning is decidedly Chicano. That perspective does not detract from its value to the rest of the world. Chicano art also can serve to reflect universal values.
To date, my wife and I have acquired nine works by Linda Vallejo. Lining the works side by side as I have in our home, I can more easily explain to family and friends not only the projection and development of Vallejo's work, but its beguiling complexity and simplicity; its magic and its spirit. Due to space constraints, I shall discuss only four of the works in an attempt to explain what compelled me to acquire them, as well as, why we continue to treasure them.
Madonna Con Columnas de Humanidad (1975) is a small lithograph on paper (of an edition of only 16) executed in 1975 while Linda was studying in Spain. The Madonna is classically posed holding the child, but appearing suspended between the two columns, she's not confined by conventional strictures. Rather, she appears thoroughly modern, as she is keenly aware of the real suffering of ordinary people; projecting out her sympathy to the problems of modern man. I submit that the stilted composition is designed to deliberately belie its tender intentions. I notice the tentative positioning of the columns of humanity on either side of the Madonna that are composed of abstracted stick-like figures, seemingly inching their way up the travails of human existence. And, although the Madonna looks like a cutout from a magazine on baroque art, her soft face and gently flowing robes relaxes the viewer into acceptance of her powers and is complemented by the Christ child's stare.
Madonna explains many things about Vallejo's work. Although an expressly conventional work, it clearly portends the works to come. I had never seen this work prior to 1991 when we acquired it. Yet it explained so much to me about where Linda's work had been and where it was going. Now twenty-five years old, this piece anchors Linda's oeuvre. It is an image transformed by the time Linda's Beneath the Skin is included in the landmark Chicana Voices & Visions exhibition in 1987 and one that continues to reemerge and reinvent itself up to the present day.
We first purchased The Spirit of Nature as Quetzalcoatl in 1987, when I saw a series of about eight then new works of graphite and ink on paper. Quetzalcoatl was the mythical benevolent god of the Aztecs who, having been made aware of, and acting upon, his human nature, left in disgrace but vowed to return to the Valley of Mexico to retake his place. Representing both the virtuous in pre-Hispanic mythology, as well as the unwitting cause of the downfall of the Aztec empire, Quetzalcoatl remains an enigma in Mexican history. It is the prediction of his return that confused the Aztecs when Hernan Cortez arrived at the outskirts of their empire; a tale every child in Mexico learns in school. I remember well the mixed messages I received in learning that the good can also bring disaster upon us all.
Quetzalcoatl has been frequently depicted by Mexican artists, most notably by Jose Clemente Orozco in his frescoes at Dartmouth College and Diego Rivera at the National Palace in Mexico City. Orozco depicted Quetzalcoatl as an aging Moses-like figure. Here, Vallejo has represented Quetzalcoatl as a virile young man facing the viewer in portrait form. His feathered headdress has become vines and leaves as if from a thick tree trunk. But it is the lines that compose his face that appeal to me most. The medium too lends much to the simplicity of the sitter's stare. There is no pretense here. The piece reminds us that Quetzalcoatl remains present among us. In his previous manifestations he was a feathered serpent, a stone, a Moses, or a sitting Buddha-like figure (as depicted by Diego Rivera). Vallejo's Quetzalcoatl is a young man, a purely secular being-perhaps warning us about our impending collision with the environment. This work may also be the last one depicting a male. The mystical vision of Aztlan as a modern Eden and Quetzalcoatl as its Adam, gave way to Linda's many Eves, seeking deeper understanding from the viewer. Linda long ago decided that women better represent the convergence of ideas that make up her oeuvre.
Sunrise (1988) is a simple composition of wood and acrylics of blues and yellows on a small canvas. It harks back to the palos of previous years, but it also portends the Cielos series. When I first saw this work, I immediately compared it to Claude Monet's Impression: Sunrise (1873), although Vallejo's Sunrise has the colors inverted. The light from the sunrise appears to be scorching the ground. If it is that time of the morning, it is going to be a hot day, indeed. Whereas, the Monet depicts an idyllic harbor scene with ship masts off in the horizon, Linda's Sunrise shows us bare tree trunks standing or fallen in the foreground, alone and apart, with no leaves or branches, as if after a fire. The paint is thick and hard and not translucent and blended. This juxtapositioning may not have been intentional, but I could not help but note it when I first saw Sunrise.
Beyond that obvious comparison, I have come to understand something else about Sunrise. It is a pivotal piece in Linda's oeuvre. Not only because it stands at the crossroads between her three dimensional-often abstract-mixed-media works and her, almost exclusively, works on canvas since Sunrise, but because it also signals a turn to a more mystical and introspective work. Almost as if announcing a new era, Sunrise speaks of a longing for something else, something yet unsaid. I have interpreted the scorched earth image I attribute to Sunrise to be akin to the new growth that soon sprouts after a devastating fire. Indeed, Sunrise is one of the few works on canvas since that Linda has executed that is devoid of the human figure.
Others will no doubt speak more eloquently and authoritatively than I can about the current Los Cielos series. I will concentrate on one piece from that suite. I believe we acquired the first work in that series in 1996. At the time it was the largest work on canvas Linda had completed. (Linda has since completed several larger works for this series.) I fell in love with the work immediately upon seeing it.
One can appreciate the Los Cielos series for different reasons. The piece we acquired conjures up a cornucopia of images and reactions. Visually, it is smoke from a burning fire, it is clouds viewed from mid-air, it is that white water from a torrential river, or the southern clouds, or maybe the northern clouds; a visual symphony of color nuance. Discovering new tableaux each time I see the work is one of its many strengths. Another strength is its moodiness brought on by its luminous qualities. This painting changes as the light of the day and night changes. Cool, hot, somber or joyful; it all depends on the light. But more to the point, this painting changes the place it is encompassing. The eyes, nose and mouth over the deep recesses of the upper nocturnal sky focus the viewer on the question of the symbolic intentions of the painter. Again, Meso-American imagery seems to emerge. This time, instead of a plumed serpent, perhaps it is the Xbalanqué, the little jaguar found in the Popol Vuh.iv
But there is nothing like getting lost in all the negative space. It is that negative space which allows one to conjure up even more fantastic images. Conversely, it is an opportunity to see nothing in particular, to appreciate its colors for what they are, or how they are woven together, or why they come and go. It also allows me to dream and dream and dream on with no objective, just because there is a beautiful painting allowing me to do so. Borrowing from Mark Rothko, my Cielos "is not a picture of an experience, it is an experience."v
Taken together, the four pieces alerted me to the transcendent message in Linda's work. Three of the four contain religious imagery, while the fourth appears to me to rely on the barren landscape to convey the sense of the questioning that is at the heart of all religious experience. Thus, the four works establish a dialogue between Linda's works that informs me, at least, of her deep conviction, her closeness to nature and the higher powers that control all our destinies. Even as most of Linda's oeuvre over of the last few years may be said to be more introspective, these four works serve as points of reference, as compass points for the four directions, that any journey can take us.
Finally, two of the pieces are multi-colored canvases and two are monochromatic works on paper; two are large and two are small. Small points, perhaps but along with the great insights that these pieces have allowed me to garner, they were noted while seated on the couch where I can view them daily.
The relationship of artist and collector is generally a fickle and complicated one. There are issues of evolving tastes on the part of the collector and just as quickly evolving artistic interests on the part of the artist, not to mention monetary considerations. Yet it is worth noting, at least in passing, that Linda remains a true friend, not because of so many shared trials and tribulations which are said to be the hallmarks of true friendship, but precisely because despite their absence, we have not grown distant, as so many friendships in this megalopolis often do.
This exhibition is the first attempt at examining closely the work of this great artist at mid-career. I have often told Linda how confident I am that despite her lack of recognition to date; I believe she will survive the art history cut. Unlike so many others who work for fame instead of for the redemption of their artistic soul, Linda's work will speak long after her. Not that it matters, but I remain convinced that Linda's strength of spirit will last and the poetry of her work will be recognized even if neither of us is around to witness it. Through the works which I am fortunate to safeguard, I shall remain a chronicler of Linda's journey until time catches up with her vision.
Armando Duron is a long-time supporter and collector of Chicano art of Los Angeles. Duron was President of the Artes de Mexico Festival Committee in 1991 and was President of the Board of SPARC in the mid-nineties. Selections from the Mary and Armando Duron collection, including four works by Linda Vallejo, are included in the "East of the River: Chicano Art Collectors Anonymous" exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Fall 2000.
Urban Prayers: The Celestial Imagery of Linda Vallejo
By Reina Alejandra Prado Saldivar
Excited to meet with Linda Vallejo and engage in a conversation about her artistic oeuvre, I watched in awe as she began arranging the large-scale paintings. This ceremonial circle of images enveloped us as she shared her life experiences that brought her to this creative catharsis. As we talked about her solo exhibit and completion of the series Los Cielos (The Heavens, 1996 - 2000), I inquired about her artistic challenges being a woman and a Chicana artist. She states of her early involvement in the arts, "I had to learn how to talk again" (Personal interview, 21 Apr 2000).
For the past 25 years, Vallejo's indigenous training, and understanding has guided her creative journey. A creative journey that began in the '70s with her introduction to sweat lodges and indigenous ceremony practices. It has been informed by her artistic training that combines influences from Europe, Mexico and Chicano art. In Los Cielos, Vallejo challenges herself to depict skyscapes in the form of large-scale paintings, positing her as a Post-NeoBaroque artist. Elements and themes addressed in Los Cielos can be seen in her previous series entitled Tree People (1980-1990) and Woman of Love and Integrity (1990-1996). With the latter series, Vallejo has searched ways in which to create art that brings together all of Vallejo's worlds and experiences. In Los Cielos, this process is synthesized most strikingly in the paintings that capture the various cloud formations. Vallejo's newest body of work presents the artistic vision from a chronicler of our time.
The series Los Cielos invites us to encounter these works aesthetically and emotionally. Upon viewing, I was challenged to find words to describe my emotive reactions. In the presence of these paintings, I felt the same joy as when I see the gradations of reds and violets in a Los Angeles sunset. Perhaps, what is most provocative about Los Cielos is that Vallejo addresses the spiritual void of our times. In many ways, each of these paintings elicits homage to nature. Los Cielos is a series of prayers. These are beautifully and exquisitely rendered skyscapes which cannot be solely understood as New Age expressions to Mother Earth. That would be too easy. Inspired by indigenous ceremony practices of the Américas and informed by the Western art canon, the radical element of this series is that is transcends artistic conventions of landscape painting. Los Cielos encompasses an ongoing creative process that bridges nature and spirituality, with commanding attention due to the scale and intent of the work.
I have worked to discover woman in her modern and ancient place as a source of strength, love, and integrity. I believe that all women are a part of the earth and can be inspired by relationship with and through nature.
- Linda Vallejo (1994)
As a child, Vallejo's family was stationed in Europe due to her father's military service. Vallejo's parents took their precocious child to fine art museums, where she discovered an artworld of the ancient civilizations and Western art masters. By age seven, "I knew that I wanted to be an artist" (Interview 21 Apr). Through her early twenties, she studied in Europe before her family's return to the States, settling in East Los Angeles. Vallejo continued studies at Whittier College.
In 1978, she completed a Master of Fine Arts at California State University Long Beach. However, it was her experience seeing a Native American festival in her twenties and her participation in the burgeoning Chicano artistic community that embarked her on a life path that led to the creation of Los Cielos.
Upon seeing Vallejo's creative evolution, Armando Duron, states, "Her artworks over the past twenty-five years evoke the spirit of a Mesoamerican shaman chronicling the story of her people's creation and journey through transcendent time and space (Notes from Living Room Couch, 2000). At a very early stage in her career, Vallejo began combining her artistic training with lessons learned from spiritual elders from several Native American communities. During the '90s, she directed and managed her own art gallery, Galería de las Americas, providing a venue for Latino artists to exhibit their work. She returned to painting to replenish her creative spirit. Since 1996, the new body of work entitled Los Cielos has commanded her attention. For this series, she balanced her many selves in order to arrive at a thematic point of spiritual contemplation. She consolidates the best lessons learned. As she says, "integration takes a long time" (Interview, 21 Apr).
Like most graduate art students in the '70s, Vallejo was trained looking at the works of European Masters. During her preparatory studies in Europe, she saw the works John Constable, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Claude Monet, Francisco Goya, and Caravaggio. With Los Cielos, one can trace her artistic execution to the Baroque and Neo Baroque traditions, as seen in the rendering of the luminous urban sky. Furthermore, Los Cielos can is also be placed within the Américas artistic tradition, as seen in the landscape painters of the Hudson River School, and Mexican artist José Maria Velasco. These landscape painters were in awe of their subject, carefully rendering their interpretation of the land. Similarly, Vallejo is in awe of her subject - the heavens. In Los Cielos Vallejo contribution to landscape painting is that she posits skyscapes as another element of our environment worthy of depicting. Moreover, her meticulous recording of the sky's movement in its varying stages, like the Romantic and Impressionist painters of the 19th century, attaches Vallejo to a landscape tradition in painting not readily seen in Chicano art.
Vallejo's incorporation of the mystical in paintings resonates with the work by British artist Turner and Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, most importantly in the scale and execution of these paintings. Like Turner and Rothko, Vallejo chooses to create works that reconfigure one's perception of landscape paintings as vehicles to spiritual enlightenment. As a Chicana, Vallejo reclaims nature as subject, defining for herself her relationship to nature, an artistic tradition seen in among Latina artists. Conceptually, Los Cielos is in conversation with Anna Mendieta's Silueta series (1973-1980), in that both artists chose landscape as subject to discuss their social and spiritual relationship to the environment. Difference being in the medium selected to execute each one's body of work. The fact that Vallejo selected to complete this series in oils (some are acrylic) canonizes this body of work to a Western art tradition and expands the conversation between Chicano and European art traditions.
In Los Cielos, Vallejo links Chicano spiritual subject to the Western art Masters. She builds upon the work of Turner, specifically, her execution of the sky's colored variations and atmospheric movement, which are at the heart of Los Cielos. We can connect Vallejo to Turner's matured artistic style that became more abstract due to heightened coloration technique. Perhaps more poignantly, Los Cielos is akin to the spiritual content and monumentality of Mark Rothko's paintings. Both Rothko and Vallejo evoke a spiritual consciousness with their abstract styles. Rothko felt that his paintings addressed "the tragic mystery of our perishable condition." As Rothko would describe "the silence of God" (Fineberg, 107). Vallejo on the other hand, celebrates the ever changing moods of Tonantzin (Aztec diety Mother Earth) and Ometeotl (Aztec diety of duality). Turner and Rothko were artists conscious of how color fields enhances a mood or state of being. The same can be said of Vallejo.
Furthermore, her mastery of light adds luminosity to this body of work analogous with Turner's tumultuous storm scenes, as seen in the paintings Alpha & Omega (acrylic on canvas, 1998) Full Moon in Daylight (oil on canvas, 2000).
As much as one can place Vallejo in relationship to these Masters, her work is also strong because it offers another perspective on "Chicano" art. Vallejo is one of the few, if not the only, Chicana artist that has chosen skyscapes as a theme to communicate the spiritual core of her community.. Like her Chicana contemporaries, Vallejo uses the "female lenses of social critique and ceremony" (Mesa-Bains, 1990) to present multiple interpretations on the spiritual. In Los Cielos, she does not resort to mixed media installations of home altars or depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe, rather she creates a visual language not dependent on formulaic cultural iconography recognized in most Chicano art. In some respects, the gestural quality, the lusciousness of the paint, and the depiction of our urban times is reminiscent of Carlos Almaraz' Car Crash series. Almaraz was at once deeply Chicano and his art not easily seen as iconographic. Within each of their respective series, Vallejo and Almaraz present us records of our urban landscape in which the subtext is about the Chicanos' relationship to land. Metaphorically, Los Cielos are prayers imbued with indigenous ceremony practice and ways of seeing one's world. A few paintings in Los Cielos include works that reference Mesoamerican imagery - as seen in the beautifully rendered Aztec Moon Goddess (Coyolxauqui) entitled Full Moon (2000)- she offers a wholistic feminine interpretation of this deity. Thematically complementing this piece are the paintings Father Sky - Mother Earth (2000) and Reflecting Pool (1998).
The beauty in seeing a body of work developed over a span of time is that the artist shares with us her creative process, as if each of the Los Cielos paintings is a journal entry of a life observed. Like the photographer, Vallejo conceptually documents a moment and executes it in a painting tradition. Most of the work in this current series challenges us to think of intellectual frameworks for art that communes with a higher power and is introspective. How can one have intimacy with something on a large scale? As viewers take a moment to see these paintings through the artist gaze. Vallejo invites us to engage with each painting, to get lost in the clouds.
Reina Alejandra Prado Saldivar
Duron, Armando. "Notes from the Living Room Couch: A Collector Speaks Out." Los Cielos (exhibition catalogue), 2000.
Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since the 1940s: Strategies of Being. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1995) p107.
Mesa-Bains, Amalia. "El Mundo Feminino: Chicana Artists of the Movement - A Commentary on Development and Production." Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1995. ed. Richard Griswold del Castillo. UNM Press, 1990 (Wight Art Gallery, UCLA) p 130.
Vallejo, Linda. Personal interview. 21 Apr. 2000.
Reina Alejandra Prado Saldivar is a cultural activist in the Tucson, Los Angeles and San Francisco art communities. She teaches courses on Mexican and Chicano art and culture at community colleges and state universities in Southern California. Some of her accomplishments include curating art exhibitions on contemporary Chicano Latino artists and publishing articles on the Bi-annual Ateliers at Self-Help Graphics & Art criticism on contemporary Latino artists for anthologies and magazines. Currently, she is the Registrar at Self-Help Graphics & Art, Inc., a community based arts organization in East Los Angeles. She also works independently as an arts consultant.
The "Los Cielos/The Heavens" 1996-2000 Series seeks to integrate my understanding and experience of ceremony, personal love of nature, and healing through nature. Often, in sharing these paintings with others, I am told deeply personal stories of personal catharsis and healing. One of my goals as a painter has been to touch collective unconscious and I believe that "Los Cielos" has been successful in reaching a place deep within the viewer. It is my hope that these works bring peace, healing and balance to the viewer.” To date, I have completed over fifty "Los Cielos" paintings in acrylic and oil on canvas and masonite. Each painting contains a minimum of 100 layers of paint, taking over one year to complete.
“I believe that the natural environment is a fundamental source of healing and essential for any individual to know and understand who they are and what they are meant to create in this life. Standing alone in nature; hours on end, drinking in the wind, earth, and sky I have known this healing from the natural environment. This remains my perception of my ‘environment’, a wondrous place of knowing and renewal.”
Linda Vallejo was born in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, California, in 1951. She traveled and studied throughout the United States, Europe and Mexico. She received a Master of Fine Arts Degree from Cal State University, Long Beach, in 1978. In the late 1970s and early 1980s she studied Maya and Azteca dance with the Flores de Aztlan Troupe. During these formative years, Las Flores de Aztlan presented teachings and workshops throughout the State of California at cultural centers, universities, and in traditional Native American and Chicano ceremonies. These ceremonies included Fiesta de Maiz and Dia de Los Muertos in Los Angeles, Fiesta de Colores in Sacramento, and Chicano Park Day in San Diego. Over the past twenty years, she has participated in and supported traditional ceremony in South Dakota, California and Arizona.
Awards include UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, Artist Award; Quien es Quien in U.S. Commerce, National Award; National Association of Chicano Studies, Distinguished Recognition; and Latinas Making History Award, Comision Feminil de Los Angeles.
Selected Exhibitions include University of Judaism, Los Angeles, 2001; SCA Gallery, Pomona, 2001;Social Public and Art Resource Center (SPARC), Los Angeles, 2000; Carnegie Art Museum, ”The Peter and Eileen Norton Collection” Oxnard, California, 2000; Santa Monica Museum, “East of the River” 2000; Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Laguna Art Museum, California; Art Museum of South Texas, Anchorage Museum of History and Art, The Bronx Museum and Museum of Modem Art, New York; The San Antonio Museum, Texas; Mexico City Modem Art Museum; Denver Art Museum; Albuquerque Museum; San Francisco Museum of Modem Art; Fresno Art Museum; Tucson Museum of Art; National Museum of American Art, Washington D.C.; Museo de America, University of Madrid and La Sala de Exposiciones de Editora Nacional, Madrid, Spain; Casa Mexico, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico; Galeria el Juglar, Cuidad de Mexico; Amerika Haus Berlin, Germany; University of California Los Angeles Wright Gallery; Women’s Building, Los Angeles; Brockman Gallery, Los Angeles; Galeria Posada, Sacramento; Self-Help Graphics & Art, Los Angeles and Galeria Las Americas, Los Angeles.
Major Publications include ARTnews Magazine, California State University, Santa Barbara, CEMA Collection, Art Business News, Southwest Art, Saludos Hispanos, Hispanic Business Magazine, "Strong Hearts, Inspired Minds," Rowanbeny Books, Los Angeles Times, Hispanic Reporter, Los Angeles Downtown Magazine, Latin Style Magazine, PBS "The History of the Mexican American Civil Right Movement," 1996.