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Thick and Thin

"Horse Race, Part I," by Santiago Prez, oil on canvas.

Painter Santiago Pérez, who lived in Colorado Springs for several years as a member of the U.S. Air Force, is the subject of the multi-dimensional Return of the Wizard, an enormous solo show on display at the Carson-Masuoka Gallery. The impressive exhibit includes more than fifty paintings done over the past eighteen months.

A relentless experimenter, Pérez does three distinct types of work -- magic realist paintings, Western paintings, and more or less traditional landscape paintings. He also uses an incredibly broad variety of styles and techniques. What holds them all together is the theme of the American West, in particular the Hispanic tradition.

Born into an agrarian family in San Antonio, Texas, in 1950 -- his father was a ranch hand -- Pérez was always interested in art, and he continued to draw and paint even after he joined the Air Force. In the 1980s, while he was stationed in Germany, Pérez got serious about painting. He exhibited his work for the first time in 1988 just before being transferred to Colorado Springs. There he rented a studio and painted with incredible drive and ambition, often putting in fifty hours a week. Pérez got his first break in 1990, when his work was included in an annual exhibit at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo. That may not sound like an auspicious beginning, but at the time, the juried exhibit was regarded as especially important for southern Colorado artists.

Pérez was prolific and began to exhibit regularly in Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, getting his Denver premiere in 1992 in Sin Fronteras, a survey of contemporary Hispanic art organized by Sally Perisho at the Center for the Visual Arts. Pérez's incredible paintings on tin at that show earned him instant recognition at a time when interest in Hispanic art in Denver was growing. The following year, Pérez was picked up by a major commercial venue: the Sandy Carson Gallery, forerunner of Carson-Masuoka.

In the mid-'90s, Pérez was transferred to New Mexico, and in 2000, he retired from the Air Force. He now lives and works in Tijeras, New Mexico, and devotes himself full-time to his painting. That explains how he was able to do so many paintings for Return of the Wizard. To be honest, the show is uneven, and there are some paintings that seem halfhearted and thin, but Pérez has got a good average, and the best pieces more than make up for these few disappointments.

Self-taught, Pérez used art-history books to learn about painting, and he cites fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch as a source for his work. But many other influences are evident in his art, including the seventeenth-century Spanish baroque painters, the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century romantic realists working out West, and the twentieth-century surrealists and neo-expressionists. In fact, Pérez appeared hard on the heels of the neo-expressionist craze of the '80s and early '90s, and his work is clearly most closely associated with that movement.

All of these sources reveal themselves in the title piece, "Return of the Wizard," a large oil on canvas. In the center is a bus or trailer, complete with a door, wheels and headlights, that has been disguised as a Trojan-style horse. Sitting partly inside and partly on top of the bus is a figure wearing a conical hat and a bird mask, presumably the wizard. The hat and mask are just two of many cones here; the foreground is covered with them. This weird and unnerving night scene is atmospheric: The background is a deep, dark, rich blue, while the horse and rider are in an almost glow-in-the-dark combination of taxicab yellow, fire-engine red and powdered-sugar white.

For this elaborately detailed scene, Pérez laid on a remarkable number of visual brush strokes. And because several underpainted levels are visible in places, tons of additional strokes must have been used to create the painting.

Most of the rest of the show is made up of related paintings in a style that Pérez calls "magic realism." Gallery director Mark Masuoka has installed the works so that a number of monumental pieces anchor the principal spaces while similar smaller pieces complement them. In between are Pérez's Western-style and landscape paintings.

As might be expected, though, most of the standouts are examples of magic realism. On the back wall in the main room are two incredible mural-sized oil paintings, "Horse Race, Part I" and "Horse Race, Part II," that function as a single composition in spite of their slightly different dimensions and their size (approximately six feet by eight feet each). In them, Pérez has evoked an otherworldly environment inhabited by grotesque creatures and littered with monumental stone horse heads. The colors -- green, ocher and brown -- result in a surprisingly lush, if quiet palette, and the occasional use of orangey accents makes the perfect counterpoint to the more generously applied earthy shades.

In a side gallery is a group of paintings that bring Pérez's historic sources to the surface. The room resembles an old Spanish chapel. On one wall is "The Three Pointed Knight," in which a rider in a three-pointed hat is coming out of the back of a rearing horse in an elaborate livery of cowl and skirts. As in "Wizard," the central figure is painted with bright colors that seem to glow in the dark against the deep, murky ground. Adjacent is "The Terrible Beauty," a oil-on-canvas portrait of a hideous female figure seated on a throne and holding a rodent on her lap. The figure, wearing a crown of antlers and in splendid robes, unblinkingly stares out at the viewer. The surfaces of this painting are unforgettable, as is the expert handling of the flawlessly painted draped robes covered in gorgeous vegetal and floral patterns.

Some small character studies -- portraits of men, for the most part -- are done in oil on metal. These paintings push the Hispanic-themed content to the forefront, because painting on metal, which is fairly unusual, is a traditional technique seen in Hispanic religious art, especially that of Mexico and New Mexico.

In a back conference room are a group of Western paintings and landscapes, several of which fall well within the tradition of Remington and Russell. "The White-Rumped Pony" and "Red Sublett, Rodeo Cowboy and Clown" are two such works: Both look as if they stepped right out of the Denver Art Museum's Harmsen Collection, and both focus on rodeo cowboys on bucking broncos. Less conventional but still picking up on the Western theme are eight horse-and-rider paintings done in oil on Masonite. In each, Pérez painted a horse and rider, and cut the Masonite into the shape of both. The cut-out Masonite was then adhered to a wooden armature.

Among the most memorable features of Pérez's work are the staccato brush strokes that he applies with great speed. This technique lends a tremendous amount of visual interest to his paintings, regardless of the subject matter.


Stephen Alarid is another Hispanic artist with more than a decade of exhibitions behind him. And, like Pérez, he also has a real strength in his rapid-fire action with a brush.

His latest effort is Steve Alarid at Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis. A longtime member of the Pirate co-op, Alarid has been showing his work around town since the mid-1980s. During that time, he's done essentially the same kind of thing -- dense, organic, non-linear pattern paintings that often hide figures or animals -- but in the last five years or so, he's gotten really good at it. And while the local art world hasn't yet noticed, those elsewhere have: In 1998, Alarid received an award and grant from New York's prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation and has exhibited several times in New York galleries.

The Pirate show has a problem or two: The paintings have been hung too high and too far apart, and none of them has been labeled. If you ignore these shortcomings, however, you'll notice that there are a number of strong pieces.

Alarid's paintings are encrusted with paint. He lays down the ground in a particular color -- yellow or red or teal green -- then adds a dizzying number of dots and dashes arranged in crowded labyrinthine patterns using a wide array of other colors. In several pieces -- notably, a large rectangular panel that's predominantly yellow -- depictions of human eyes cover the surface. In others it's the bust of a woman. One unusual painting is done with a shiny teal ground that's principally covered in dark gold arcs and dots. More than any of the other Alarids in the show, this one looks self-consciously Hispanic-themed, as it recalls the patterns used on those painted-plaster vases and trays made in Mexico.

On the back wall, Alarid has hung what is clearly the best piece in the show, a triptych. In the center panel, a large horizontal rectangle, Alarid has covered the dark ground with brightly colored marks. The effect of the light against the dark is similar to that seen in Pérez's paintings. The subject, an all but hidden horse, appears to be glowing in the dark. On either side of the central panel are a pair of narrow verticals painted with linear patterns done in gold on gold. These metallic side panels increase the already considerable luminosity that Alarid conjures up. (As I looked at it, I kept thinking how much better it would have appeared had it been installed more sensitively.)

Alarid's layered pattern paintings remind me of the work of an all-but-forgotten Denver modernist who died in the 1990s, Edward Marecak. Like Alarid, Marecak used dazzlingly bright colors sometimes combined with metallic paints, and he shared a fondness for repeated, simple marks like spirals, circles and squares. I once asked Alarid if Marecak had been an influence on him. He told me that he'd never even heard of the painter, which isn't hard to believe, since Marecak's work is rarely exhibited. Still, the visual inter-relationship between their paintings is a strange coincidence.

Although it's clear that Alarid could barely be bothered to put up this show, his state of ennui must have set in only after he'd completed his paintings. So it's still worth a trip to Pirate -- if only to see that marvelous triptych.


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