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Tortilla Flashbacks

Put fifty feet of clean white wall in front of Carlos Fresquez and it won't stay that way for long. The Denver-born artist's been at work on the wall for only two hours, but already in the background, snow-capped peaks rise and unfold across the flat surface--to remind him, Fresquez...
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Put fifty feet of clean white wall in front of Carlos Fresquez and it won't stay that way for long. The Denver-born artist's been at work on the wall for only two hours, but already in the background, snow-capped peaks rise and unfold across the flat surface--to remind him, Fresquez says, that they're still there. But like modern life, it's not that simple. Layered over the landscape and rendered in an earthy palette ("like the colors have been burned into the wall," Fresquez explains), floating random shapes and references begin to emerge from the chaos. It's a metaphor, you realize, for civilization itself. It's also a play on simple perspective studies.'s a whole bunch of other stuff, one thing piled on top of the other.

What's emerging will be Fresquez's contribution to Storylines, a group exhibit of personal narrative artworks opening this week at the CU Art Galleries in Boulder. The show's concept seems invented for Fresquez, who as a rule incorporates subjective symbols and allusions into his work. Animals, pre-Columbian figures, religious santos, cityscapes, heroes of the Chicano movement, cartoondom's Mighty Mouse and Fresquez's own family members are a few of the images he's considering.

At the heart of this particular piece, however, is the legacy of his grandmother, Lorencita, an Isleta Pueblo Indian from New Mexico who taught her grandchildren to look for images on the surfaces of freshly grilled tortillas. If that sounds wacky, think again: For Fresquez, Grandma's imagination was a formative element in his journey toward becoming an artist. She turns 97 in September but is still quick-witted, energetic and possessed of a lightness he can describe only as "dancing." Fresquez has already honored his late grandfather, a bronco-busting vaquero from the San Luis Valley, many times in paintings and prints. This time, it's Grandma's turn.

His grandmother rolled out tortilla dough and slapped it back and forth in her hands before placing it on the comal, or griddle, to brown. "Then she'd pick one up and spin it around, just like she was driving," Fresquez continues. "She'd flip it over and turn it around again until an image appeared. She'd call us all in to see, and maybe a face would be there. Sometimes the images were small, like the size of a quarter. Sometimes there might be a full-sized image of a deer or elk. Sometimes you really had to strain to see them.

"It was a ritual for her, just like painting is a ritual for me," he says. "She fed us, but it was not just food. She opened the parameters for us to dream."

Among the images Fresquez plans to float over his finished mural are twelve circular prints called "Tortillas: Hecho en Aztlan." Some of these "tortillas" depict personal icons--a deer, a peace sign and the eagle logo of the United Farm Workers, for instance--while others pay homage to the artistic influences of Picasso, Manet and Mondrian. They're reverent yet tongue-in-cheek: A happy-face likeness is tagged "Have a Maiz Day," and the Manet-like picnic is titled "Tacos on the Lawn."

Most of all, though, they represent seeds and roots for Fresquez, how one thing leads to another and a story or a life is created: "The tortilla has been around for centuries--I eat them, my children eat them, my parents and my grandparents eat them. These circles keep appearing in my work--the never-ending form, the sacred circle, the snake eating its own tail."

The painting itself, which the fast-working Fresquez hopes to complete in just a few days (with help from his son and his niece Vanessa, an art student at Metropolitan State College of Denver), is shaping up as a kind of historical timeline, following the region's rise of humanity from ancient indigenous cultures to contemporary times. Much of its imagery represents Fresquez's own sense of cultural polarity. A man of many layers, he doesn't think or talk in straight lines, which is fine with him.

"My whole life is a duality," Fresquez says. And it's true--he often juxtaposes urban and rural motifs, organic and geometric shapes or extreme surfaces and textures. But there's more to it than that. Fresquez's New Mexican ancestry is both ancient Indio and new-world Hispanic, and growing up, he went back and forth from a street-level aesthetic to the more refined milieu of a college student and artist. "I'd study Picasso and Rauschenberg, then go home and have beans and chile," he says. "At school I learned about 'isms,' but at home it was the 'ismos'--like machismo and Chicanismo. I learned about art for art's sake, and then in the street I learned about art for humanity's sake. One minute I was raising my fist in protest, wanting the world to notice, and three, four hours later, I could care less."

But Fresquez takes polarity in stride. It is, after all, the root of what makes him Carlos Fresquez and not a collection of dogmas and cultural prejudices. "One part of me has been here for thousands and thousands of years," he says, remembering the peace and serenity of the adobe-walled place where his abuela was born. "If I set my hand in the soil, I know I belong here."


Storylines, August 28-October 24, CU Art Galleries, Sibell-Wolle Fine Arts Building, CU-Boulder campus, 303-492-8300. Opening reception August 28, 6-8 p.m.

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