Artist Jorge R. Gutierrez’s Exports “Border Bang” From Mexico to the U.S.
From Mickey Mouse to Tupac, the artist talks reappropriating the bombardment of pop culture images
Images: Gregorio Escalante Gallery
Like any worthy superhero, Jorge R. Gutierrez is gifted/conflicted with a duality. Having grown up along the border in Tijuana, the animator and director best known for the 2014 animated film, The Book of Life, and co-creator of the Nickelodeon cartoon El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, is undoubtedly a son of Mexico. But, he is one that also had “one foot, one eye, one ear” in the United States. And it’s in that very schism that his visual aesthetic was filled in–with the alternating currents of both countries. The handmade hallmark and vitality of Mexican folk art collided, but never blindly, with an American pop culture sensibility. To Gutierrez’s deft eye, Spiderman is a masked luchador, because… isn’t he kinda though?
Presently, Gutierrez finds himself trading the sphere of digital animation for paper and paints in his first ever solo art show. Border Bang, presented at the Gregorio Escalante Gallery in Los Angeles, is a collection of 57 new acrylic paintings gathered as a love letter to the Mexican/U.S. border and the kitsch, brilliant crap and bootlegs peddled there to tourists and locals alike. It is a carnival of cartoons, superhero tropes, rap and entertainment gods, alive and lost, from both sides of the frontera. But lean in and take a closer read. The matter-of-fact reality of life and politics at the border and beyond stares back, unblinking.
Mass Appeal: People will talk about the terroir of a place: its essence seeping into and becoming intrinsic to a particular expression, be it wine or music, or in this case, visual art. Can you talk about the specific terroir of Tijuana and how it forever informed your aesthetic?
Jorge R. Gutierrez: Absolutely! Tijuana is the last chaotic and spicy corner of all of Latin America and growing up there means you have one foot, one eye, and one ear on each side of the border. Growing up with this border duality, it’s impossible not to be shaped as an individual let alone an artist. Since I was raised in Mexico, I did not grow up a minority but I knew there was a culture next door that was very powerful. It’s weird but I only realized I was Mexican when I would cross into the U.S.. Because of this constant cross-pollination, the things I create, in whatever medium like paintings, writing, cartoons or films, have this border duality. Also, because I’m a Tijuana kid, I’m more than happy to disappoint and contradict both sides equally.
Who are each of these characters to you? Why them?
The rule I gave myself for the show was that every painting had to depict a character or person I saw being sold at the border as a bootleg figure, towel, shirt, ceramic bank, piñata, etc. These border artisans make their own unique versions of this pop culture from the U.S. and Japan that constantly bombards Mexico. And they make it their own and then actually sell it back. I love it! This is what inspired me. The show is a sort of greatest hits of all the characters and people that stuck with me.
Aside from being a love letter to those items sold at the border, the show also feels like an unapologetic love letter to the Latino kids (and adults even) coming up now–a means for them to see their own lives, voices and culture as worthy fruit. Like a you-can-do-this-too valentine.
Yes! It’s like you can see into my soul! There’s nothing more Mexican than taking something from another part of the world and making it your own to reflect who you are. We are not reflected in Hollywood popular culture, in films and TV shows so, we reshape them to look like us.
Each painting is so rich with narrative. Would you say that, above all, you are a storyteller?
Thank you. And yes, that will always be my first love: to tell a story. And every piece has a little story behind it. Some are more obvious than others, but there’s definitely a narrative to each one. Most of them are meant to be funny and bitter sweet, just like I remember Tijuana. Humor is something I wish I saw more of in Latin art. Life is hard enough.
A definite sense of humor permeates this body of work. Then we land at your piece on Trump. You’re not pulling any punches with choosing swastikas as eyes. You stop us in our tracks with the reminder of this real-life danger we all face.
I started painting for the show early this year and lots of world events happened that made it to the border culture and I had to reflect that. El Chapo was captured and now they sell El Chapo Halloween masks. So I painted him. Prince and Bowie passed away, and of course, they now sell shirts and products immortalizing them. So I painted them too. The border responds to the dreams, demands, and fears of the people who cross. And of course, they sell Donald Trump piñatas. So I had to paint him. I didn’t think anyone would buy this piece but I felt it was my responsibility as a Mexican artist to paint this joker as a reminder and warning. This cartoon villain is very real. I posted a picture of this piece on Twitter and received several death threats from his followers, pretty much proving my point of the feelings he inspires and nurtures in his followers.
For years, film studio executives slammed doors in your face saying that there isn’t an audience for your vision, the cartoon series, and films that you wanted to make. Were you served a similar refrain regarding showing your paintings?
Well, let’s just say there’s not a big demand for the type of Mexperimental stuff I like to paint in the gallery world. I’ve been told many times my work is too Mexican for the U.S. and not Mexican enough for Mexico. Thankfully, most of the paintings I sell are from people contacting me directly through social media. And thankfully the buying audience in the gallery world is becoming more culturally diverse. So hopefully this helps galleries in the U.S. show more artists of color. It is a business after all. No one is racist to the color green.
What kept you creating through those years of rejection and the studios’ narrow thinking?
I was raised Catholic so I grew up thinking if you didn’t suffer and almost die for something you believed in then it wasn’t worth it. I also really studied all my heroes in my family and in film, animation, and art and saw the same narrative pattern of suffering, rejection, and failure before any type of success. It was the path I had to take. Now, my father always laughs and says he can’t believe I actually get paid to do something I would absolutely do for free. And he’s right.
Following last year’s #OscarsSoWhite, what does it mean for you to then be invited into the Academy Awards’ Class of 2016? Are you optimistic?
It is a huge honor and something I take very seriously as an artist and filmmaker. To be able to hopefully bring other culturally diverse points of view to the mostly Caucasian pool of Academy voters is huge. I’m very optimistic for the future but I’m not naive enough to think things will change overnight. But, this is a great step. Always hope for the best, but be ready for the worst.
Border Bang opens Saturday, July 9 at the Gregorio Escalante Gallery (978 Chung King Rd.) in Los Angeles, and runs through August 14, 2016.