Monday, October 5, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "A Man of Many Masks" (on Elsa Flores Almaraz and Richard Montoya's film Carlos Almaraz: Playing with Fire)


a man of many masks

Elsa Flores Almaraz and Richard Montoya (writers and directors) Carlos Almaraz: Playing with Fire / 2019

In reviewing the LGBTQ documentary Carlos Almaraz: Playing with Fire offered for the first time yesterday on Netflix, it’s hard to get past the fact that I am good friends with the major director, Almaraz’s wife Elsa Flores Almaraz and with several figures who appear in the film, including Cheech Marin, Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan, and Dan Guerrero, as well as being acquainted with several others including John Valadez and Jane Livingston. Perhaps even more importantly, I am married to Howard N. Fox, the curator of the LACMA show Playing with Fire: The Paintings of Carlos Almaraz which occasioned the documentary and who appears throughout the film, including being the first voice you hear during this film’s 1 hour and 22 minutes run.

    I lived through the several years it took Howard to mount the art show and saw several earlier versions of the documentary as Elsa and Richard Montoya were struggling to complete it. If I was asked, accordingly, to answer whether or not I could be objective about the review I am about to write I’d have to admit that that would be impossible to know. I saw the love, caring, and worrying that went into the exhibition and the film from the very first moment Cheech and his wife invited LACMA’s Govan and his wife, then Curator of Contemporary Art Franklin Sirmans and his wife,  and Howard and me to dinner where the museum director lured Howard out of retirement to curate the show. 

     The only thing I could say that might mitigate my utterly unobjective viewpoint is that, unlike Howard, I never met the artist who is the subject of his wife’s and friends’ celebration of his life. Yet we have to ask in this case what precisely was that life?  Carlos, always fascinated by the many masks that every individual daily displays, would never have allowed a single adorative viewpoint to express his more than complex manner of living. 

      After a quick arc of his childhood travels from his birth in Mexico City to his family’s move to Chicago where he lived in a community that was highly diverse, to their eventual settlement in Los Angeles, where the young boy found himself within a large Spanish speaking community of people from Mexico and Central and South America that in its every vastness and linguistic differences was highly separated from the rest of the fabric of the sprawling city, the film focuses in on Carlos the precociously charming kid.

     Early on, the young Carlos entered a newspaper-clipping competition for drawing and soon after was visited at his home by executives from the Walt Disney Studios interested in hiring him—he was age 9 at the time—later, as a young man, becoming the kind of person everyone who met him wanted to be around—in New York City he was described as having gone AWOL for two days after knocking on Robert Rauschenberg’s studio door.

     Yet even then he was also a man of extremes, a kind of haunted being, particularly in his early days, when he seriously embraced many different identities in an attempt to discover and satisfy his numerous passions. A short time after he and his friend Dan Guerrero left their Los Angeles homes to discover life in New York, Carlos explored his sexuality so radically that even his gay friend admits he was startled by some of the sexual events in which Carlos described himself as participating.

    The New York scene into which the two friends had descended, while obviously agreeable to the would-be actor and later theatrical agent Guerrero, was, in its conceptual and minimalist sensibilities of the mid-to late sixties (Carlos was in the City from 1965 to 1970) the polar opposite of the gifts of this, one might almost argue, romantic young artist. And in a world of primarily all-white males who controlled not only galleries and the museums but defined most of the artists themselves, a brown face, as the film describes it, was something difficult for the scene to assimilate. While he might be sought after as a sexual partner, his agitated and colorful grid compositions seemed to be statements in contradiction.

      Depressed by the reception he received and, perhaps, by the sometimes hostile and violent sexual scene he inhabited, Carlos begin to drink heavily, and by the time he returned to Los Angeles was a full-fledged alcoholic at age 29 who, after one night of drinking, was so psychotically disturbed and physically near-death that he was hospitalized for several weeks, at one point hearing the last rites being read over his body.

      When Howard first begin doing research on Carlos Almaraz’s work, he has startled by the fact that what had been written, whether by academics or journalists made utterly no mention of his homosexuality. He feared that perhaps Elsa was holding back some of the truths about Carlos’ life to accord with her and Carlos’ deep love and commitment to each other. In fact, when Howard asked her about this, Elsa openly laughed and said that she too had wondered about the omission, insisting that she welcomed a fuller evaluation of all aspects of her husband’s complex life.* Neither this film (nor Howard’s show), although both representing the artist in a positive way, could at all be described as a hagiography.

     Even when he was “reborn” after his near-death experience, Carlos took directions that no one might have expected. With Frank Romero, Robert de la Rocha, and Gilbert Luján (the group later adding Judithe Hernández), Carlos became one of the Chicano art collective Los Four, which brought their collectively-conceived notion of art and Chicano art in general into public attention, particularly when Jane Livingston (then a curator at LACMA) organized a show centering on their work, which was the first larger gathering of Chicano art in a major US museum. attracting many viewers who had never before felt welcome in a museum setting.

      Yet the group was fairly short-lived because of divisions between members, particularly regarding the difference between defining themselves as part of a group or from an individual perspective. Carlos, moreover, increasingly moved on to explore different political values. In one short period, Elsa somewhat humorously notes, Carlos was a Maoist, a Marxist, and a Trotskyite at one time. He traveled to Cuba, but didn’t like what he saw there.

       More important, only a year after his hospitalization, the artist became deeply involved with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, painting large banners not only for that union’s conventions but for Luis Valdez’s Teatro Campesino, which brought plays into the worker’s fields.

       So conflicted were Carlos’ many activities that artist and gallery friends both argued that he must sacrifice some of his political work to devote time to his own painting. When he successfully did that, painting the first of what might almost be described as autobiographical representations of unexpected relationships between the individual and fate in his famous works depicting car crashes, some friends saw the move as a kind of abandonment of his political and social commitments.

       These beloved works, however, revealed another side of his passion, as, along with his “Echo Park Series” paintings, Carlos committed himself slathering paint so thickly upon the canvas as if, as Fox puts it, he were painting with butter, that one can only recognize the act as a sensual representation of something akin to pouring out one’s blood and guts upon the canvas, pulling and pushing color and paint across the surface in a manner that might almost remind us of a more realist-inclined Jackson Pollack. As the film suggests, of the abstract expressionists only Pollack remained of deep interest to Carlos.

      Carlos had also long been exploring his sexuality through women instead of simply with  men, eventually falling in love with Elsa Flores, in 1981 marrying her. In 1983 the couple had a daughter, Maya. Friends note how perfect they appeared to be for each other, allowing both of them as artists to create new works in the most joyful of an atmosphere Carlos had perhaps ever experienced.

      In the mid-1980s he and Elsa co-organized a remarkably successful show of his art at the Jan Turner Gallery in Los Angeles, allowing Carlos  to return on a short visit to New York, now with noted works and sales in his portfolio. 

      As Guerrero noted, observing the couple’s pleasure in each other’s company and the way they lovingly related to their beloved baby, it became clear that Carlos had now found what he had always been looking for.

      A brief mention that as a child he had been sexually abused by his uncle and a priest, is not to suggest that those acts were necessarily the cause of his homosexuality, but that they had, as Elsa has argued elsewhere, severe repercussions regarding his earlier sexual relationships with males.

      And now that Carlos was experiencing what might be described as his halcyon days, that had awarded him love and joys of family life and a new explosion of artistic expression, almost like one of the several car crashes he had painted, his own life seemed to be ready to be consumed by fate. For, as the 1980s came to a close Carlos discovered that he had contracted the then still misunderstood virus, AIDS.

     Fortunately, when tested, Elsa and Maya were both free of the disease. But, in order to protect their daughter, whose friends they were afraid might be fearful of house visits where it openly known, they kept the fact of his illness secret from most of their friends.

      Close friends and relatives knew he was extremely sick, but didn’t in these early days of AIDS truly comprehend the cause. For his part, Carlos painted more intensely that he ever had, producing works that, in my estimation, were some of the most narratively complex and theatrically conceived of his entire career.

       At first Carlos felt, Elsa states, a great deal of guilt, a feeling that because he had been a “sinner” he had suddenly lost all the joys he had finally been awarded, as if he were somehow being punished for his sexual activities. Yet, in the end, she assures us he was able to realize that his sexual desires were no sin and what had happened to him was not a punishment. “I’m so glad he was able to get there and not leave this earth feeling resentment or incomplete,” she confides. The artist died in 1989.

       In the final few moments of this powerful cinematic work, we see the opening of the Carlos Almaraz exhibition at LACMA in August 2017, the camera tracking us through the museum doors into various galleries both empty and filled with opening week celebrators, as if 28-years later this significant Los Angeles artist was finally coming home to where some of his earliest art had been shown. And in that sense, the documentary ends with a kind of uplifting message that suggests it simply took the art world a few decades to catch up with what Carlos had long been expressing so clearly in his art.

      Along with a large catalogue of pop-music accompanying the images, and the stunning use of his flip-books and fascination with cinematic animation, I’d argue that this was the best artist-based documentary in many years, made even more fascinating by its LGBTQ links. 

*I would also posit the idea that in the earliest days of his art it was still exceedingly difficult for anyone to bring up the issues of homosexual and bisexual behavior. What’s more, as Almaraz increasingly became associated with the Chicano movement, critics and friends alike played down the sexuality of the artists while centering their observations about the political and social contexts. The same thing happened to several black artists and writers of the Harlem Movement, notably Langston Hughes, whose estate still resists any mention of Hughes’ gay sexuality.

 Los Angeles, October 2, 2020

Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (October 2020).

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