A few pages into The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, an astute observer cautions Roussel, one of several young artists gathered in the gallery of the influential art dealer Vollard, against craving membership in a club that won’t have him or his ilk. He ends by reminding the eager Roussel: “No, my dear young friend, there is art and there is official art, there always has been and there always will be.”
David Zamora Casas may not share the Nabi painter’s desire for entry into the halls of “official” art, but he is frustrated by what he views as complacency, denial, and a lack of politicized work in certain corners of the local arts community. “Which `local` arts organizations have had shows about queer identity?” he asks. “Even though there are lots of homosexual men in the local arts infrastructure, what have they done to get the arts community to embrace it?” He stares into the middle distance for a few seconds. “The door is politely kept closed to us.”
Casas, who recently turned 48, is voluble when it comes to sexuality, queer politics, Chicanismo, and how those themes shape his work. And while there are several artists and writers whose interests parallel Casas’ — Alma López, Cherríe Moraga, Luis Alfaro, and the late Gloria Anzaldúa come to mind — it’s important to state the obvious: Those individuals established themselves in West Coast cities known for their relatively progressive and tolerant, if not entirely accepting, views on sexual minorities. San Anto ain’t San Francisco, in other words. Casas, however, thrives on but also has less patience with our slow move toward greater openness. Perhaps it’s a function of age, but he says it’s time for others — the younger ones — to grab the baton he’s ready to pass on. “I’ve stopped wanting to be the squeaky wheel all the time,” he tells me. “I just want to do my work.”
It’s difficult to write about David Zamora Casas the Artist without giving serious consideration to David Zamora Casas the Personality. His artistic production, which has been variously described as visionary, unfocused, brilliant, unsubtle, important, and predictable, is often eclipsed by his signature flamboyance. (The fact that sources would not speak for attribution reinforces the fact that San Antonio’s visual-arts community is still relatively small and interdependent, and therefore reluctant to strike a self-critical pose.) However, these conflicting views, equal parts delight and distaste, are actually a welcome barometer, for they are responding to art that has a discernible point of view or a radically new way of expressing it.
Because no one is quite sure where Casas’ persona ends and his work begins, his self-assessment rings true: “I live my life as a performance,” he says, sounding a bit operatic. “That allows me to be free, to do those things that are denied to me.” Part of the “performance,” the side of Casas that some shrug off as passé, includes regularly dressing in costume that is closer to rascuachismo (the art of making do with what you’ve got, no matter how meager, and turning it into something beautiful) than it is to drag. (When I told an artist friend, who’s been on the receiving end of Casas’ outrageous act, that I interviewed him for this article, she asked, “And did he show you his pee-pee?” She then gave a pretend yawn. Official art, indeed.)
“Why do I dress up? Well, as someone said, ‘Every day is Halloween,’” Casas explains. In el cosmos de Casas, going to the grocery store or the laundromat occasions public performance. I’ve watched children titter, señoras stare, and machos look away in disgust. But whether it’s acknowledged or not, Casas’ gender-fuck pushes the envelope mightily, and he’s intent on bringing his gente along with him. Although transgression, he recognizes, has its limits here in San Antonio.
“It would be nice if two men could dance together at the Conjunto Festival without creating an uproar,” he says. Being out in one’s home community exacts a price, which, Casas contends, explains the large number of closeted men in this city, where many jotos are dutiful sons who remain close to familia.
Still, neat rationalizations aside, Casas’ routine is cause for concern: “When I walk down the street `in full make-up`, I worry about getting hit with a brick,” he admits. And if this is starting to put you in mind of the late Quentin Crisp, it’s important to recall that as an adult, the self-proclaimed “stately homo of England” was frequently beat up by thuggish Londoners. Casas is quick to note that like Crisp, whose self-imposed exile brought him the security he never felt at home, he has felt most accepted far from San Antonio. An opening at Chicago’s famed National Museum of Mexican Art in 1993 allowed him to feel a warmth that he rarely feels here in his own tierra.
Casas, who proudly claims his status as a self-taught artist, came of age as a gay man when the ravages of AIDS were first taking hold and decimating a community whose newfound liberation became a pathetic joke to some. The pandemic has had a profound effect on Casas and his work. He detests the fact that in some circles it’s referred to in the past tense, as a historical footnote to queer history. The “dark days” of the AIDS pandemic fueled his desire to work, he says, adding that “those days were also a period of intense learning.” At the height of the AIDS “scare,” he felt a relentless drive to create as much as possible. He sees that frenzy of activity as a direct parallel to attitudes about sex at the time: “I need sex. I want sex. I hate sex.” (For one of his paintings of La Pelona, as death is popularly called in Mexico, Casas mixed his semen with the paint he used on the canvas, as both an act of fury and an enactment of creation.) In the mid-’80s Casas was embittered at the loss of “so many friends.” Today, he says, he still hasn’t gotten over the devastation.
But this rage-driven creativity is, in the end, surpassed by Casas’ yearning for dignity and abiding love. His work, unfailingly autobiographical and narrative, like that of his idol, Frida Kahlo, is a quest not so much for the new, as it is a constant search for his true self. A current enthusiasm is his need to “create new words to describe what we feel, who we are.” Shunning the more conventional boyfriend, lover, partner labels, Casas poetically refers to his compañero as his belovèd. “When I’m with him,” he says, “I feel good.”
Two young neighborhood boys walk into the Galería Tonantzin at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, where Casas is installing the recently opened Exquisite Corpse exhibition he co-curated with Deborah Kuetzpalin Vásquez. An Amy Winehouse CD is playing full volume. Casas greets them as if they’re family. They walk away as quickly as they entered. “See those chavalones?” Casas says. “The future.” As he walks me to my car, a rooster in the adjacent alley crows vigorously. David Zamora Casas’ tomorrow has arrived. •
A Conversation with David Zamora Casas
6:30pm Jul 29
San Antonio Museum of Art
200 W. Jones