During his Artpace residency, Cesar Augusto Martinez gave an interview that was extremely insightful and helpful
in shedding some light on the influences that were essential in forming his current body of work. Born in the Texas border
town of Laredo in 1944, Cesar Martinez spent his childhood in both his hometown as well as his family's ranch in Northern
Mexico. Martinez graduated from the Texas A&I University in Kingsville and after being drafted to Korea in 1969, he moved
to San Antonio where he has been a leading figure in the Chicano art movement ever since. Through his art, Martinez is able
to explore and record his multicultural life experience as a Mexican-American by focusing on everyday Chicanos who confront
the viewer boldly as if to emphasize their worth as subjects of art as the ultimate result of a rich history of diverse cultures.
Producing a prolific body of work in various media, Martinez is today widely known, however, for his Bato
and Pachuco Series of paintings. The unifying factors seen throughout these series are the elementary components of an individual
Chicano set against massive flat spaces behind him/her. A typical example of the Bato Series is the painting 'Bato con Sunglasses'
where a distinctive Hispanic male, cropped from the chest up, is centrally placed against an enormous, flat, green background
that is, all together, topped by a horizontal band of blue. Reminiscent of the Fauvist manner, Martinez takes many liberties
with color as specifically seen when he depicts skin in a conspicuous neon yellow. Perhaps much of the Bato Series' success
is due to the fact that they are extremely vivid and are, therefore, easily accessible to our memory. Cesar has observed how
the popularity of these images have been able to cross cultures and that they are essentially "a universal thing."
In the typical abstract manner, the artist is able to breakdown his characters and images to produce the most basic figures,
creating a sort of modern archetype that Carl Jung defined as the most elemental forms that we are continually drawn to and
remember. The artist confesses that he was "consciously working with physiological types that you would recognize."
The powerful combination of simplicity coupled with brazen colors make for a stunning first impression. In an attempt to create
a stereotype, the individuals in Martinez's works are merely hybrids derived and elaborated from many different photographs
found in high school yearbooks, obituaries, newspapers, and other public sources. Martinez puts his intent into perspective
by simply saying "This is about culture and identifiable images." In his youth, Cesar had been impressed by the
works of fellow artists like Jose Montoya's objective drawings of real people, "El Queso's" paintings of Chicanos,
as well as Richard Avedon's methodical photographs of people from the barrio. Martinez seized the idea of making an icon of
"some pachuco" and admits that he thought his friends "were doing some very original stuff, and they influenced
me where subject matter is concerned."
As far back as the early Seventies, one of Martinez's first grants enabled him to travel around the Southwest
for the sole purpose of photographing Chicano works, including murals that have been destroyed since. The Bato Series still
reflects Martinez's concerted efforts to record the essence of Chicano culture. In many ways, Martinez has been continuing
a long tradition seen in Western American art with his portraits of the stylish pachucos and rucas that were prevalent throughout
the Forties and Fifties. Decades earlier, predecessors like painter George Caitlin and photographer Edward S. Curtis also
rushed to capture the vanishing culture of the Native Americans. Indeed, Martinez often likens his work to the paintings of
Native American Fritz Scholder in the way both artists compose frontal portraitures of their respective races. Martinez resourcefully
inherits the Western American artistic tendency to be not merely an artist but an ethnologist as well.
While Cesar notes the ethnological value of his pieces, he continues to emphasize that his work, above all,
is art. Martinez explains "The idea of a very frontal, and very emotionless, almost expressionless face just staring
at you, that came from Richard Avedon's work. So it was essentially taken from a photographic format. Very neutral. The trick
is to do something with that." The Bato Series is able to achieve the status of art through various combined methods,
such as subjective use of color and the utilization of background space as an opportunity and forum to experiment with the
nonfigurative. Despite being fairly inconspicuous and often overlooked, an important and interesting aspect of the Bato Series
is the idiosyncratic use of background space. The artist warns "Our own people tend to look at work like this as a cultural
artifact, as opposed to art. They couldnt care less for the background. They go for the character." The backgrounds seem
very plain indeed and with the little information given, the simplicity often functions to refocus the observers attention
back to the Chicano as the only tangible point of reference. Martinez claims Alberto Giacometti as his main inspiration for
the spatial use of his backgrounds. Giacometti is known for his sculptural figures, which are extenuated vertically to the
point that they are absurdly tall and skinny. In reference to the Bato Series backgrounds, Martinez explains "That's
a very crucial part of the painting. I deliberately make my images proportional to the canvas. They're very small in there...
It's like they carried around them this atmosphere."
While every painting in the series is different and unique, generally the unassuming backgrounds consist
primarily of two flat planes of basic colors. These backgrounds can be read naturally as landscapes that recede toward a horizon
line where they eventually meet the sky. In fact, when Cesar was first starting his Rio Grande Series inspired by Southwestern
lanscapes, he described them as "basically what we have in the Pachuco Series, backgrounds only, a basic horizon line
there." In this manner, Martinez is much in tune with the ideals of abstract painters who were, in turn, looking back
to the seminal works of Caspar David Friedrich and his tendency to breakdown landscapes into elemental forms.
Probably the most natural way to conceptualize the background, however, is as an upright wall layered
with vibrant colors that are often seen in traditional Mexican architecture as well as in the more modern works of Mexican
architects like Luis Barrigan and his student Legoretta. In Mexican architecture, as in Martinez's pieces, the louder the
colors the better. Now, instead of a sky line, the upper horizontal band of color can be seen as an elevated tier of paint
that normally functions in the architectural facade to distinguish the top frieze from the lower piano nobile.
No matter how the viewer envisions these backgrounds, it is clear that it is in these particular recessed
part of the composition where the artist feels most comfortable to diverge from representation. With the turn of the millenium,
the fluxuation between the abstact and the figurative is now actually quite a common phenomenon where artists often attempt
to show off their technical mastery of representation as well as the more recent lessons learned from the abstraction that
defined the twentieth-century. It is in these backgrounds that Cesar is able to express themes that were inspired and instilled
by art movements popular during his formative years. When the impressionable Cesar graduated from college, he was mainly influenced
by "the end of the Abstract Expressionist movement and where abstract art is concerned, color-field painting was the
thing." Indeed, much of Cesar's explorations in his backgrounds are reminiscent of works from the Black Mountain College
school, where Rauschenberg and Johns studied under Josef Albers and his experimental techniques of placing flat planes of
color on top of other flat planes of color. In another way, Martinez's backgrounds can be seen as a supercharged translation
of Rothko's paintings, where meditative subtlety has been translated into cultural and personal identity.
From painting to painting in this Bato Series, slight variations exist in each one that makes each piece a unique
and valuable study. Sometimes in these backgrounds other shades of color are permitted to peer through the layering and at
other times figures like a scorpion or cat are even suggested. In 'Hombre with a very Reasonable Dream,' the artist seems
to have loosened up with his brushstroke and his composition has now become more dynamic by the way strokes penetrate the
static geometric boundaries of the rectangular background. On closer inspection, we see that these unexpected brushstrokes
actually operate to form an image of a wing. Wings are a common reoccurring motif found throughout Martinez's collected works
and they make a vague but conclusive reference to the winged Nike of Samothrace. In Martinezs usual diplomatic style, he effectively
embraces Nike, the epitome of Hellenistic sculpture, into the preexisting fabric of his Mexican-American dialect. In the same
way Greek civilization harnessed the various cultures of the enormous empire of Alexander to create a unified Hellenistic
whole, Martinez has had to come to terms with his own diverse identity. As the Post-Modern art historian and architect Robert
Venturi might encourage, Martinez has eclectically appropriated various historical and cultural elements and collaborated
them together to create something new and innovative. In the face of gentrification and globalization, a unique identity is
essential now, more than ever, in a brave new world.
Throughout the whole breadth of Martinez's work, we see perennial references to the paradigms of art history.
Besides the reference to Nike, Martinez perpetually quotes Goya's bats, Picasso's bulls, Munch's scream, and even refers as
far back to the caves of Lascaux. In 'Mona Lupe,' Martinez even merges the icon of the Virgin Mary with the portrait of da
Vinci's 'Mona Lisa' to form a single hybrid figure. All of Martinez's images are alike, however, in that they all share a
similar composition in how the individual is centrally placed in a very static and frontal way. The centrality acts to concentrate
on the main figure's importance as the heart and soul of the painting and demands reverence towards the icon presented. Indeed,
it is often suggested that the history of art is simply a progressive glorification of the sole individual that originally
began with the Gods and moved on to saints, on to depictions of kings, on to depictions of aristocrats, on to depictions of
the middle-class, and eventually on to the depiction of even the simplest peasant. Martinez successfully inherits this long
tradition through his veneration of lower-class minorites who have, otherwise, been overlooked by their society.
Martinez claims that he is interested in "art as it pertains to me" and is equally proud of his
European sources as much as any other of his other heritages. Martinez openly condemns negative propaganda in "Chicano
art, in general in that there was a tendency to deprecate the European side of us" and he is also wary of the fact that
"the Aztecs who were supposedly oppressed but they weren't exactly benevolent rulers themselves." In reference to
his European and American duality, Martinez acknowledges "I admired aspects of both cultures and that became the Mestizo
Series." Cesar's debt to European culture is best realized and most clearly illustrated in this Mestizo Series, where
a drawing 'El Mestizo' depicts a man metamorphosing into a bull and a jaguar. This image is a metaphor for the culmination
and manifestation of today's Mestizos. A bull, which effectively personifies Spanish ancestry, fuses together with a jaguar
that symbolizes the heritage of Mexico. Together these forces unite to produce today's Mestizo and as Martinez briefly puts
it, "We are Mestizos."
In 'Europa,' a more basic drawing bearing resemblance to the simplicity of Francesco Clemente, the picture
now only concentrates on the mans transformation into a bull and excludes the jaguar all together. In Spanish, Cesar's first
language, 'Europa' means Europe and the drawing seems to only focus on the European aspect of the Mestizo. Indeed, Martinez
owes credit to his Spanish predecessors as the representation of a bull-man was a favorite motif of the Spaniard Pablo Picasso.
Like Cesar, Picasso was obsessed with bullfighting and depicted bulls incessantly and eventually forged illustrations of a
bull-man using the Minotaur as his model and beacon. Functioning on the multilevel vocabulary that Martinez customarily maneuvers
on, however, automatically creates a multitude of meaning and, consequently, the title 'Europa' makes immediate insinuations
towards the mythological tale of the rape of Europa as retold in Ovid's 'Metamorphoses.' According to this legend, Zeus disguised
himself as a bull in order to trick the unsuspecting maiden Europa so that he might eventually have his way with her. Zeus
was king of the sophisticated pantheon of the Greeks whom are, in turn, often considered the founders of Western civilization.
The title 'Europa' is crucial because it immediately suggests several different interpretations and alludes to other subjects
and characters outside the view of the canvas. The visual focus is on the man turning into a bull but the title refocuses
on the victim Europa and the act of rape that Zeus imposed on her. Despite Martinez's professed proud European heritage, his
title is impregnated with copious meanings and, therefore, cannot escape the negative connotations of a violent rape. So,
whether the artist intends it or not, there are blatant parallels to Zeus' violent rape of Europa and the Europeans rape of
the indigenous people of the Americas. Ultimately, the resultant offspring is the mixed (Mestizo) race whom Martinez portrays
vividly by elevating them to the platform of art.
Thomas Cummins art philosophy