San Angel Gallery departs widely from the white-walled interior of most galleries. Don't be fooled by the postcards and T-shirts, though, because they are cohabitating with works by Cisco Jiménez and Victoria Suescum, both Venice Biennale artists, and Isaac Smith, whose sculptures are in the Smithsonian Institution. Major works climb the walls and cover the carved tables, interspersed with handmade jewelry, books, and the newest addition, big jars of licorice! The effect is enlivening, like a Mexican marketplace complete with chirping birds and indigenous plants.
San Angel is a product of owner Hank Lee's passion for Folk, Ethnographic, and Outsider art. These separate genres often blur as they share the heavy imprint of their makers' personalities. Most of the sculptures are wood or recycled metal. Animal forms are common and feel totemic, while skeletal muertes are believed to summon the dead. Yet the overall spiritual residue may be what the artists themselves invest in these objects and, often, a deep compulsion to create.
Outsider art is experiencing a resurgence in the mainstream and has its imitators. Witness the large number of MFA-holding artists who are creating childlike doodles and rough, imperfect works that mimic folk art. The frankness of self-taught art appeals to both artists and collectors, but in this environment, one must acknowledge the real thing. So-called primitive art, particularly the art of children, the insane, the Middle Ages, and various ethnographies, was the central hinge of modernist style and philosophy. Early on, Picasso denied the influence of ethnographic art, though his connection to African and Iberian sculpture has been well documented. More authentic was Douanier Rousseau, whose nickname comes from his day job as a toll collector, or "douanier." His paintings are fantastical, often of jungle scenes, and his handling of paint is reminiscent of American Quaker paintings. Today his works hang in museums next to his avant-garde peers.
San Angel is vastly important in this realm and holds monthly exhibitions of featured artists. Currently they have assembled one of the largest exhibitions of work by Nicholas Herrera, a santero, or santos maker, from New Mexico. Upon entering, the works are immediately recognizable as religious retablos, two-dimensional panel paintings. These are small, intimate paintings on wood with irregular edges. Bultos, or three-dimensional carved sculptures, are also shown, interspersed with candles and candelabras that evoke the traditional religious function of such saintly images.
Herrera, dubbed "El Rito Santero" after his New Mexican village, is descended from a 19th-century santero. These craftsmen, few in number, were considered holy and, though they received no formal training, their work was seen as precious. Their traditions managed to survive into the 20th century, where we flash forward to Nicholas Herrera, a wild child who survived a head-on car crash in 1990 and, after being ejected head first through the windshield into the snow, believes he was brought back to life to "make saints."
In "Cruzing," a prostitute in an urban setting is as tall as the skyscrapers. She encounters a miniature man in a black coupe whose front hydraulics lift with a slinky-like spring while a phallic blue tower sprouts behind it. The silliness of the manly overcompensation is contagious. Another retablo represents San Ysidro Labrador, the patron saint of farmers, driving a tractor rather than the traditional oxen, while angels hover nearby, scattering seeds and tossing out snakes. The painting, with clarity of expression, represents bounty. A similar painting of a car repair shop near a road plays with distant space. Scale and perspective are totally distorted. Objects laying on the ground seem to defy gravity and the total effect is fantastic in every sense of the word.
One wall is devoted to images of Christ with one particular portrait standing out for its blue face. While this could easily be written off as a colorful artistic whim, there is a tradition of "blue Cristos" documented as far back as the 18th century. Color in santos is read as easily as subject matter. A green cross represents life whereas a black one symbolizes death. Herrera's pigments come from soot, New Mexico plants, and red clay near Taos. His varnish is mixed with Everclear for a hedonistic kick.
This is a fun show with a prestigious following. Many works have already walked so get there soon and do some research on San Angel's website, www.sanangelfolkart.com. Or better yet, just walk in and let gallery operators Hank Lee, Leigh Ann Lester, and others weave a spell of enthusiasm in person. •