Meet Me in San Luis

The Emilio Lobato solo at Havu is a real knockout.

Since the first of the year, Denver has seen a number of heavy-duty exhibits devoted to abstraction: There was the gorgeous Jeff Wenzel show at Ron Judish, the sublime Jeffrey Keith solo at Rule and the historic Robert Motherwell and Richard Serra exhibits seen together at Robischon. Now it's time to add Emilio Lobato: dando vueltas, currently at the William Havu Gallery, to this impressive list.

Lobato, who has maintained a studio in downtown Denver for a decade or so, is one of the region's most important abstract artists. His signature work combines collage and paint to produce pieces that sport gestural geometric compositions. While these elegant abstractions seem very non-objective, they are actually subjective, at least according to Lobato. They are narratives, loosely speaking, that illustrate the artist's own life story.

Lobato was born in 1959 in San Pablo -- a town close to the New Mexico border in the San Luis Valley. "It's so small, it's not even on the maps," he says. He remembers his early life as one of solitude.

"Trinidad," by Emilio Lobato, collage and oil on canvas.
"Trinidad," by Emilio Lobato, collage and oil on canvas.
"En el Medio," collage and oil on panel.
"En el Medio," collage and oil on panel.


Through April 14, 303-893-2360
William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street

"I have a love-hate relationship with the San Luis Valley," he says. "It afforded me all the space and time I needed just to imagine, but then there was the loneliness and isolation."

From an early age, though, he had an outlet in creativity. "The arts were encouraged in our home," he says. "My father, who raises cattle, was an amateur painter, and both my mother and father had weavers in their backgrounds." In this way, Lobato feels connected to the centuries-old artistic traditions of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

The character of his childhood has influenced his work. Lobato sees, for example, the dark palette in some of the pieces in this show as being related to the influence of the Penitentes, secret sects outlawed centuries ago by the Catholic Church that thrive even today in the isolated towns of the region. The Penitentes are known for their use of self-torture, which is carried out in emulation of the passions of Christ, and with their obsession with the death of Christ, as opposed to his resurrection. Black is one of their preferred colors -- along with blood red, of course. Lobato has relatives, though not in his immediate family, who were involved with the Penitentes.

"I'm the sixteenth generation of my father's family to have been born in the San Luis Valley," Lobato says. "My family came from Spain in the 1500s and settled in what is now Colorado but was then Mexico. Most people are descendants of people who came to the United States, but in the case of my ancestors, the United States came to them."

Lobato was raised in a Spanish-speaking home, but his school in San Luis, a town that had been founded by Spanish colonists like the Lobatos, had, ironically, an English-only policy. "You would have to sit in the corner if you spoke Spanish; it was considered bad or wrong," recalls Lobato with a shudder.

But he's gotten even with the school, at least in his own way. The collage pieces in this show, like Lobato's work of the last several years, include text-covered pages that have been torn out of books. English is not among the languages printed on these pages; Spanish, Italian, French and even Portuguese are.

The severe desert environment of the San Luis Valley also made a lasting impression on Lobato and has influenced his work and given him an eye for subtlety. "In such a stark place, little details become important, and I would notice things like a fallen twig, or leaves floating in the river," he says. "I am so grateful that I was raised there."

Eventually, Lobato left the San Luis area to enroll at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. "I didn't know when I started what a good decision it was," he says. "CC is fantastic, and though the art department was small, there were two stars on the faculty, Mary Chenoweth and Carl Reed. My work was influenced by both of them.

"Collage is something I caught from Mary Chenoweth," he continues. "She showed me that you could take something as common as the newspaper and, by pulling it out of context, create art with it. She had a tremendous collection of printed and non-printed papers that she used in her work, and now so do I."

Interestingly, Lobato evaluates printed paper according to its aesthetic properties, as opposed to its content -- just as the late Chenoweth did. "The text I choose is selected purely for its pattern," Lobato says. "I like the way laying pages in sequence looks, but the pages are not meant to be read and you couldn't read them if you wanted to."

There are, however, specific connections between the words and the images that appear together in some of the pieces in dando vueltas, but Lobato feels these were done subconsciously or instinctually.

This isn't surprising, because Lobato became interested in the subconscious and the spiritually charged when he was studying philosophy, in addition to art, at CC. Oriental philosophy and religion, notably Zen Buddhism, especially piqued his interest. "I saw the connection of my childhood to the Zen concept of 'filling the void,'" he says.

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