By Marco Vera
Alonso Elias has been an avid collector of Northwestern Mexican art for several years, particularly the innovative, contemporary outpour bursting out of Baja California's border region. The yearning constantly present when Alonso Elias observes a work of art is the principal motivator for his collection currently expanding to over 200 works of contemporary art. Having bought his first work of art in 1993 and continuing into the 2000's, the momentum and love he gained for purchasing locally produced, defiant art became uncontainable. With the support of his wife, Patty Fontes, and the enthusiasm of his family reinforcing his purchases, the Elias Fontes art collection was born. "We have about 210 artworks in our collection. Some very large, some very small. Ninety-five percent of these are from Baja California artists. I bought my first work of art in 1993. A photograph by Mexicali photographer Odette Barajas. It was a picture of a gang member with the word 'Chicali' tattooed on his chest. The second work of art I bought was in 2003. The purchasing sped up during 2008 when I met Jaime Ruiz Otis from Tijuana and he started introducing me to many talented artists," states Alonso Elias.
Currently, the Elias Fontes Art Collection is being displayed simultaneously on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The first of both shows, entitled Covet is on display at the Juanita Salazar Lowe Art Gallery at Imperial Valley College throughout the month of February. The south of the border show in Mexicali, entitled Signos, sentidos y deseo: Arte contemporáneo en Baja California, la colección Elías-Fontes will run February through June at the Instituto de Investigaciones Culturales IIC-Museo UABC. The exhibition at Imperial Valley College features the Elias Fontes Art Collection's most recent acquisitions, while the show at UABC's museum in Mexicali will be entirely bought out by the collector, some works being commissioned as future acquisitions. States Alonso Elias: "We firmly believe in these artists. We know Baja California is a state where art is flourishing. We do not haggle or discuss prices with our artists. We pay their price as long as we can make it work."
Inexplicably, the Elias Fontes Art Collection has only been exhibited twice before, once at the Steppling Art Gallery at San Diego State's satellite campus in Imperial County and at the Galería de la Ciudad within Mexicali's Instituto de Cultura de Baja California. Both shows garnered a following for Elias's select choices for exhibition and his taste for unconventional, local art became inspirational to several Baja artists. As a local, homegrown collector known to compile work that breaks the mold, Elias has inspired several Mexicali artists to produce artwork for sale in an environment without any commercial galleries (more than one local, respectable artist has been overheard uttering and wondering if Alonso Elias would like to include their work in his collection). Working in the hay business for over 17 years, Alonso Elias's collection has been amassed after many years of hard work, not as an overnight occurrence. "I have crossed the border every day all these years. I value border artists' hard work and friendship. They like this and as a result, we get a lot of presents from them. At least 30% of our collection is gifts from artists," affirms Elias.
Alonso Elias has collected emblematic work from seminal artists of the Tijuana movement such as Jaime Ruiz Otis (key player in the expansion of the collection), Daniel Ruanova, Charles Glaubitz, Alejandro Zacarias, Julio Orozco, Mely Barragan, Roberto Acevedo, Enrique Ciapara, Marcos Ramirez ERRE, amongst others. Having forged excellent relationships with these groundbreaking artists under the auspices of artist Jaime Ruiz Otis, Elias began collecting a compelling part of the innovative, cutting-edge outpour from this insanely influential border city. Travelling often to the city of Tijuana from Mexicali due to his wife's family residing there, Alonso Elias kept in touch with these artists and observed their work and careers flourish. The appetite to acquire extraordinary artwork could only grow larger with the quality of the work being produced in this region.
Alonso Elias's local pride shines through in his support of local Mexicali artists, such as newcomers Rogeiro Ramirez, Gani Guerrero and La Salvia Colectivo; veterans Odette Barajas, Julio Ruiz, and Pablo Castañeda; muralist Fernando Corona; Imperial Valley artist Luis G. Hernandez; masters Carlos Coronado Ortega and Ruben Garcia Benavides, amongst many others. The Imperial County/Mexicali desert region's new generation of artists has recently catapulted onto the world stage, Alonso Elias having been one of the early supporters of its young contemporary artists. Having dealt with the tired concept of the desert region not being considered a cultural mecca himself, Elias's satisfaction in supporting new work from Mexicali is evident in his search for not only the desert's best, but its most forward-looking. When an art buyer can influence a city scene, he becomes a part of the work that touches peoples' lives as well.
Artbound caught up with the busy collector to discuss the impulse to buy, the elements necessary for him to become obsessed with a work of art, and his love for contemporary art from Baja California.
Would you describe yourself as a compulsive collector? What are your characteristics as a buyer?
Alonso Elias: I'm pretty compulsive. If I like something, I want to buy it. Even when I know it might not be the best work available, I'll buy it.
What factors do you need to be in place when observing a work of art in order for you to become obsessed with it?
AE: Generally, a certain arrangement of elements and/or something that has to do with my life, my surroundings, my history.
How is your interest in contemporary art born, particularly in the work being produced in the Baja/Northwest region?
AE: The interest was born when I went to the opening of the MARCO Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterrey in 1991. They'd give out whiskey but I started liking the art shows and began attending even when they weren't giving out whiskey. Their initial show was entitled "Myth and Magic in America: The Eighties." It featured Basquiat, Harring, etc. Then I started noticing that local artists were producing work whose quality level was comparable to the rest of the world.
Your community and your work and its relationship to the art which interests you.
AE: My community produces situations which the artists living in it portray or comment on. My work in Imperial County is not necessarily art-related, but what inspires these artists is around me every day.
What region of the Northwest interests you more artistically and why?
AE: The region I am most interested in is Baja California. I'm from here. The themes surrounding me are the themes of the artists I buy from: borders, migration, violence, economy, contemporary slavery (domestic workers, for example), plus a long list of et ceteras. When I see photographs of artwork from other states in Mexico, it can almost seem as foreign to me as something produced by a European artist.
Being a collector is not as common in the Imperial County region. What are some of the clichés involved in doing so?
AE: There are actually lots of collectors locally. It's just there's no communication between the parties involved. There is no promotion for work on sale. A cliché can be the admiration towards the collector. I don't see it as something admirable at all. What is admirable is the quantity and quality of the artists in Baja California.
Covet is on display at the Juanita Salazar Lowe Art Gallery at Imperial Valley College through the month of February. Signos, sentidos y deseo: Arte contemporáneo en Baja California, la colección Elías-Fontes is on exhibit now and until June at the Instituto de Investigaciones Culturales IIC-Museo UABC in Mexicali.
Top Image: Daniel Ruanova, "In the Jaws of the Beast II."
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