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Sonia Romero thinks in layers when making prints. She is aware of where details, shapes and colors land in her artwork. Her screenprint "Bee Pile" is featured in "Estampas de la Raza: Contemporary Prints from the Romo Collection" a comprehensive look at Chicano art in serigraphs, screenprints and other forms of self-made prints from 1984-2011.
Romero's "Bee Pile" is a cluster of detailed insects anchoring the center of the print -- thorax, wings, repeating yellow/black -- it contains an immense amount of detail, but the upper portion is a wide open, blue sky.
Printmaking in general is a wide open, blue sky for artists too.
Romero learned printmaking in college and then went on to make serigraphs at Self-Help Graphics, the Boyle Heights printmaking shop that has hosted a number of Chicano artists over the years. Two constants play out when talking about prints in Los Angeles -- Self-Help Graphics and printmaker Richard Duardo.
Romero worked with Duardo at his studio, Modern Multiples in Downtown Los Angeles, to make "Bee Pile."
"In the studio Richard allowed me complete artistic freedom of expression. If I had an innovative idea I wanted to try, he was all for it," says Romero of Duardo who passed away in November at the age of 62.
Duardo has four prints in "Estampas de la Raza," which open at the Vincent Price Museum February 7 along with fifty others works from Chicano artists. His work features recognizable icons like Frida Khalo and Che Guevara in colorful pop art fashion, so it is no surprise that Duardo was often referred to as the West-Coast Warhol. Constantly prodding artists to turn their paintings into prints, Duardo was also responsible for turning unique works into prints.
"Purgatory Mary" by Jaime GERMS Zacarias, also in "Estampas," started out life as a painting. Today in Zacarias' studio he holds up a giclée print of the painting, a high resolution print with special paint pigment. The saintly creature is cradling a pinto bean, surrounded by a bed of tentacles and floating shapes in a vibrant sea of colors. Some purists would scoff at the idea of giclée being included in "Estampas," because it is a color copy and not a screenprint. But it was Duardo's idea to make sure that Zacarias' work was seen by more people.
"He saw this painting and was trying to find a unique way to replicate it. To do this with silk screen you would need hundreds of sheets of screen. I'm a painter by nature and that requires one type of patience, but print work is a whole different type of patience," says Zacarias pointing to the vibrant print. In the end Duardo convinced Zacarias to make a limited number of prints with added detail and signature germs silkscreened onto the print, eventually making "Purgatory Mary" a mixed-use media.
Today complex global issues are colorfully illustrated and appear on prints and serigraphs. An artist like Lalo Alcaraz relies on humor, satire to convey criticisms of capitalism.
"I had been active in the radical Chicano art scene in the early 1990s and Che was everywhere. Local hero activist and rockstar Zach de La Rocha and his band Rage Against the Machine in particular revived Che in the pop imagination of many in the scene and beyond. I eventually became a little cynical at the scene but mostly at the reaction to it, and this image popped into my head as a direct result of this involvement," says Alcaraz.
Another artist to rely on satire is Ester Hernandez' whose print "Sun Raid" shows the new face of farm workers -- a skeleton wearing a global tracking device on her wrist, illustrating how migrant workers are disrespected and have become scapegoats for failed economic policies. "Many [farm workers] have become targets for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents' raids (where the name of the print comes from) and deportation," says Hernandez.
Print making in the Chicano community flourished in the 1970s when the Chicano voice and issues were underrepresented in the art world.
As a student Glugio Nicandro studied printmaking at CalState L.A. in the late 1970s. Nicandro is better known as Gronk one of the founding members of ASCO, the Chicano art group that spray painted the exterior walls of LACMA in the 1970s (and in 2011 were invited inside for a retrospective of the group's work).
"Human Denial," Gronk's print in Estampas, is a two-tone print with a red-orange background and filled with a chaotic landscape. The print is open to interpretation and now accompanies the opera "The Indian Queen" directed by Peter Sellars with Gronk as set designer.
Gronk did not have the easiest time at Self-Help Graphics in the late 1970s, which he dubbed Self Hell Gothic (calling back to the studio's Catholic origins). He constantly clashed with founder Sister Karen Boccalero, who he dubbed "the smoking nun."
"I had a different outlook about art making than those of Self-Hell Gothic. Being Latino did not mean everything had to look the same. A living culture was about experimenting and pushing into the unknown."
Alcaraz sums up his take on creating prints that are not one of a kind.
"I hope the accessibility of my work helps promote critical thinking and Chicano art for decades to come."