As a teenager growing up in East L.A. in the 1970s Reyes Rodriguez would peek into the Mechicano Art Center and soak in the energy of artists energized by the Chicano civil rights movement.
Tropico de Nopal, the art gallery-performance space he's run on Beverly Boulevard and Union Avenue for over a decade is an attempt to create a similar space and move Chicano art forward. Chicano art is alive and well even as the civil rights movement of the 1960s has withered and the movement's leaders are gone.
Reyes is 53 years old. He earned a Bachelors of Fine Arts from CSU Long Beach in 1982 and since has consistently created in various media, such as painting, prints, and music. He'll have a chance later this year to help write the Mechicano Art Center chapter in the coordinated set of museum exhibits funded by the Getty and known as Pacific Standard Time. He's working on an exhibit tracking the influence of the art space.
The way he rattles off his public school career will mean nothing to a lot of people: Eastman Elementary School, Stevenson Junior High School, Garfield High School. But to generations of Eastsiders it's a parochial pedigree that reveals not only where he lived, but who he grew up with, and some of the life-defining experiences of his Eastside generation.
I learned a lot from him and his wife Marialice when I moved here from San Diego a decade ago. They insert their work and spirit into Tropico de Nopal. The space reminded me of the independent art spaces I'd worked at, performed, and attended in San Diego and Tijuana: places like the Centro Cultural de la Raza, El Campo Ruse, and el Sotano. I've had some mystical moments performing poetry at Tropico over the years. We connected on several levels: I'd lived in Tijuana for a while and Reyes lived there until he was six years old and he valued the interaction between literature and visual art.
It was his birthday on Dia de Los Reyes, yes his parents followed the old-school method of naming him for the saint day he was born on. I hadn't seen him in a while so it was as good an opportunity as any to catch up with him. Here's an edited version of our conversation.
How have you discovered over the years the importance of growing up on the Eastside?
I think it's everything to me. I think its everything in terms of who I am, who I've become, sort of who I draw inspiration from. The Eastside of Los Angeles is a vibrant hotbed of ideas and also just generations of creative people. There's something about the Eastside, there's a certain history, it feels like a community that's been lived in and has aged. I think there are some places you can go back to and feel you're at home, regardless of what communities have been there.
When you started college how did the Eastside manifest itself in what you studied, created?
In high school art was always very important but it was also a time during which there was a lot of activism. So for me the impetus to go to school was not to go to art school but really to become a lawyer. I wanted to go out and get some power to make some change in the community under the conditions that we were living under. I felt we needed to empower ourselves and what role are you going to play in society and the revolution and all of that. But when you always have an artist spirit it's inevitable, I was always in the art department, the theater department and the sculpture department. My real calling was to do art, not to be in the library studying different cases.
Was there a particular person growing up that sparked this interest?
When I was growing up my compadre and I were always around Mechicano Art Center which was one of the first art centers in East L.A. Mechicano was in the neighborhood, it was on my way to school, it was on my way back, it was always open. They would open the doors not only during the regular hours but also at night and see some of the elders do silkscreen, that's where I learned how to do silkscreen. And where I learned that silkscreen wasn't for me. There were plenty of painters. I remember hearing jazz for the first time in Mechicano. I remember being involved in mural programs. My summer jobs were there. Anybody who was anybody went through Mechicano Art Center, whether it was Magu, Leo Limon, members of ASCO, Carlos Almaraz.
When you finished your BFA, what did you do?
Painting, and drawing and art have always been the foundation of who I am in the art world. But I also played music for a while. I played percussion for Sabia, a folk group that traveled through the U.S. and Canada. I did a few tours with them, recorded, got a sense of that but I think being a musician requires a group effort. I knew that art was a place where I was in complete control. If I didn't produce I could blame myself, I did produce I could blame myself and I'm more comfortable in that setting.
What artists do you show at Tropico?
Arturo Romo, he's one of the most important young Chicano artists. We've shown a lot of artists from Tijuana such as Omar Nava. We also work with local artists such as Poli Marichal. We represent some of Yreina Cervantez's work. One of the things that has set Tropico apart from other galleries is that we're able to take chances with what Chicanos show, very contemporary work that's outside the traditional imagery that people expect out of Chicano art. Ten or eleven years ago the only imagery that the outside world would associate with Chicano art was narrowed down to 5-6 artists, maybe Frank Romero, Magu, Patssi Valdez. Not that there's anything wrong with that but there's a need to break from that and give opportunity to other artists.
Has you idea of what art to show at Tropico de Nopal changed over time?
I think that always changes. I think the Chicano Latino community is in such great need of spaces. There was a time around the Phantom Sightings art show at LACMA, like 5-6 of the artists in the show had a connection to Tropico and no other gallery could say that about any of the other artists. That's something that we were proud of. But you need deep pockets to play that game, to bring in contemporary artists. If you're independent, if you don't have the money to give the artists a catalogue or a show or you don't sell, you take chances.
Pacific Standard Time seems like the art institutions of L.A. writing the book of how Southern California has become a world art capital. How do you see your participation?
I think it's a very ambitious undertaking of giving an opportunity to underrepresented communities a voice. Whether it's going to be able to achieve that is going to be a challenge. It's going to depend on the spaces and how they present their work. I was asked by the Chicano Research Center at UCLA to participate, along with three other artists. I was very proud to go back to my connection with Mechicano, it's a full circle type of moment. There's an archive element and an opportunity for artists to do a re-interpretation of Mechicano. I'm going to be working with some of the videotapes produced at Mechicano. There's some really interesting imagery. My role is to reinterpret and to revive this video and present it in a new way to juxtapose the archival aspect of the show.
Tropico is between the Eastside and the Westside, leaning more toward the Eastside. Is that a position you find yourself in art in L.A.?
Not really because the way we approach exhibitions, the way we approach what we do, I think can live in the Westside and the Eastside. Tropico could live in Bergamont Station and be Tropico. Tropico could be in the Culver City corridor, it could be in downtown L.A. because I think it's about the spirit and the work we put into it.