Roberto Sifuentes is shining his old army boots, putting on a spit polish. When he’s done, he says, the piece will be finished. We sit at the table in the yard behind Gallista Gallery while Roberto spits, buffs, and talks about his comrades in arms, the Sky Soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. His intention for the boots is unnerving. When placed on the stacked birch boxes painted with Vietnam War scenes, they mirror a motif painted below. Rows of soldiers’ boots line a wartime memorial gathering; Sifuentes’ empty boots atop the altar seem to mark his own death.
The two-dozen pieces on view at Gallista Gallery this month represent four decades of painting by San Antonio artist Roberto Sifuentes, one of the most notable Latino artists in Texas. The small collection, curated by David Zamora Casas, is not an exhaustive retrospective of his work. The eclectic range of works does, however, give the viewer entry into Sifuentes’ world, though through a small door.
The key piece in the gallery is a large painting on canvas hung unframed, with the cumbersome title, I remember when I used to fly in my dreams or Life’s consequences are affected by gravity. The painting is an allegory holding a coded narrative. In the center the painter places himself, dream-flying with eyes shut, near an image of the Virgin. Below he is seen grounded, and again as a young man holding flag and sword. The rest of the canvas is filled with male and female figures representing, as Sifuentes explains, “the interloper, the dependent, the antagonist, libido, patriotism, civil disobedience, drug abuse, cosmopolitan competition, and other consequences of actions.”
Painted in 2008 to be exhibited at Luminaria, it seems to have leapt from another world. Perhaps from the world of Catholicism inhabited by Sifuentes and the Baroque painters Francisco Ribalta and Bartolome Murillo, whose works Sifuentes has copied as studies on panel. These small works are not for the commercial market, but are painting aids that exhibit Sifuentes’ mastery of classicism through their deft rendering and display of anatomy, while the washes exposing wood grain are perhaps a foray into new technique.
The robust, exaggerative figuration in the large painting and its saturated palette, however, more closely recall another period — the Communist proclamations of the post-revolutionary Mexican painters Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco.
But Sifuentes’ large canvas is not social realism, though this is part of its heritage. He has rightly been championed as an exponent of Chicano painting, his name listed as a prominent painter by the Hispanic Research Center’s director Gary Keller at Arizona State University. Sifuentes “was there when the Chicano movement painters started in the ’60s,” he says. But he’s traveled around a lot since: “People get upset because I keep changing my style. But why should I copy myself?”
The retrospective is evidence of this. Several paintings from 2001 are from Sifuentes’ series “The Transparency of Lust.” Line dominates. With the volumes of the entwined figures flattened out, they become more graphic than corporal. This technique is used to much better effect in a painting done late in 2001 that depicts the fall of the Twin Towers in New York on what we remember as 9/11. The single piece on view from Sifuentes’ New York Series, the abstract painting entitled The Fall of the North and South, or Grounds for Patriotism immediately captures the viewer’s gaze with its haunting vertical striations evoking feelings of vertigo and loss.
Another painting that stands alone is a rash of bright colors worked with a palette knife; the first perhaps of yet another series, another style. It is the least successful painting in the gallery, a stab at Georges Rouault’s brand of expressionism, which appears to have influenced many pieces, especially the abstract paintings of 2001. And there are flat portraits of fellow soldiers of Sifuentes’ youth done from photographs, and a few paintings from the 1980s and 1990s that, like much of Sifuentes’ work, demonstrate his interest in symbolism.
The single three-dimensional piece is the boot-holding altar, Tribute: Expressions of loss and remembrance by Vietnam Veterans, made of birch panels covered with realist photo-derived drawings for an exhibit at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center in 2009 that was produced by The National Vietnam War Museum. That it uses the almost-literal realism favored by Sifuentes in his youth is telling. A memorial to both his missing comrades and perhaps his own young self, the careful drawings lining the panels of the altar are lovingly laid down, the compositions intricate and masterfully arranged.
There is growth and development in Sifuentes’ career, but it’s not found in the procession of his styles. It breaks through those surfaces, evidence of all that he has seen and, by touching brush to canvas and wood, remembered to us with an ever increasing intensity. •
Four Decades of Roberto Sifuentes Retrospective C/S
1913 S Flores
Exhibit on view until Apr 6