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Imitating Life: A portrait of Chicano artist Eric Almanza

January 31st, 2014 · No Comments · Culture, Imitating Life

Eric Almanza</strong

Eric Almanza

Cory Bilicko
Managing Editor

Artist Eric Almanza was born in the United States to parents of Mexican ancestry, but he says he has struggled his entire life to justify his identity to others, as well as to himself. What makes the problem worse, he says, is that he is not fluent in Spanish and that he’s told he doesn’t “look Mexican.”
“With a plethora of labels out there such as American, Mexican, Mexican-American, Hispanic, Latino and Chicano, which I may use to categorize myself, one can see how I might struggle with the idea of self,” he says. “Therefore, I craft my work through the lens of a Chicano artist because it is the only label that seems to fit.”
Almanza’s current work explores this idea of feeling “caught between cultures,” whereby the artist doesn’t feel fully American, but also can’t really identify as being Mexican.

How would you describe the art you create?
Mainstream political paintings that draw their inspiration from popular culture.

In your artist statement, what exactly do you mean when you say that your goal is to incorporate multiple layers, both literal and philosophical, into each art piece?
Whenever I begin a new piece, I consider my topic holistically. Each element in my painting serves a purpose to conveying the overall message. Many times there may be multiple ideas I am implying with a particular element or painting. Each of those elements has been conceptually debated over and over. The size, color and placement have all been questioned in order to enhance or emphasize the primary theme or any subsidiary message that I may be trying to convey in my painting. Basically, I may be trying to say multiple things about multiple topics in any given painting.

Since the majority of your work deals with Chicano culture and identity, what is usually the subject matter of your art that doesn’t address this topic, and how do you choose it?
Right now I have narrowed my focus of interest to two topics: Chicano culture and politics and narrative painting. I am in the middle of exploring multiple paintings that draw their inspiration from the same narrative, an update to the 1984 genre. Concurrently, as I am constructing my paintings, I am developing a written narrative about a group of individuals that find themselves in mid-21st Century America where greed and capitalism have destroyed the very fabric of our global society. An oligarchy of 30 families or so controls most of the Earth’s wealth, resources and governments. The main protagonist is named Ezekiel; he wears a gas mask to conceal his identity and because no one seemed to notice him until he started covering his face. Along the way Ezekiel is joined by a pair of sisters, Domino and Daisy, and Domino’s two children. He befriends a paranoid homeless man named Carlos, who serves as a spiritual guide for Ezekiel and his several acts of rebellion that spark an uprising in the streets of Los Angeles. I chose to create this narrative after being deeply affected by the Arab Spring of 2010-11 and the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011.

“In Search of a New Home,” oil on canvas

“In Search of a New Home,” oil on canvas

Artist profile 2
Why do you characterize yourself as “a subversive painter by nature?”

I feel like I’ve always been the kind of person to go against the grain. I’m not scared to voice my opinion and speak out when I see something I disagree with. It’s in my nature. Now I use the visual images of my paintings as my voice to create a dialogue around the many social issues that concern me most. I find that it is far more effective than yelling at people.

Your work is quite detailed, and there is a strong sense of realism to it. How much time do you typically spend on one painting?
Thanks for noticing. Each painting is different, but anywhere from a month to half a year. Sometimes I take long breaks in between working on certain paintings. For example, I recently finished a painting that I started back in 2010 before I began my MFA program at Laguna College of Art and Design. I found it fitting that it was one of the first paintings that I finished after completing my MFA. I hate having unfinished work lying around.

Describe what the scene is like when you are painting.
Well, my painting studio is located in the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles. I share it with my buddy Tim Smith. The room is a large square lit by fluorescent lights, not the best for mixing colors. There are no windows, so we hang as many paintings on the wall as possible. The wall behind me as I paint is littered with 14 portraits from my Lo Que No Se Puede Ver series. My wooden easel is nestled somewhere towards the back, positioned so that I can see if someone is entering the studio. I have an uneasy feeling about having my back to the door because I am always listening to music while I paint and my headphones make me virtually deaf to the outside world. I paint from pictures displayed on a 27-inch iMac. It sits atop an old computer table that has a roll-out shelf, which I use to house my two glass palettes. To the left of my easel I have my tabouret, which is a grey and black craftsman tool chest on casters. Above my easel I have hung warm lights to balance off the cool light from the fluorescents.

“You Don’t Look Mexican!” oil on canvas

“You Don’t Look Mexican!” oil on canvas

If you chose to suddenly do work that is completely different from what you normally create, what would it likely be?
It would likely be ceramics or some form of sculpture. I have had a deeply rooted passion for the third dimension for as long as I’ve been creating art. This passion came to manifestation in 2010 when I became the ceramics teacher at Phineas Banning High School in Wilmington.

Why are you an artist?
Easy question. I am an artist because I spent most of my life trying to convince myself not to be an artist.

To view more of Almanza’s work, visit ericalmanza.com .

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