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Guerrero and the Art of Visual Narrative

By Heather Kuhn


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San Diego book artist, Raul Guerrero, has enjoyed a prolific career working within a range of multi-media art projects. Guerrero can best be described as an artistic anthropologist/historian/archeologist. This aspect of Guerrero’s work is noted by journalist Robert L. Pincus, “At the heart of the work is a search for the poetry of life…He is an anthropologist and a poet at the same time, who is able to combine both observation and subjective comment”. (12) Guerrero is an investigative artist who seeks visual symbols to clarify his thoughts in linear form. With book art he captures ideas through figurative representations of historical narratives. Guerrero’s investigative technique in art will be explored primarily through his three book works, housed in special collections at the Geisel Library located at UCSD. Born in 1945, in Brawley, California, Raul Guerrero grew up in National City before receiving a BFA from the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1970. Guerrero told me he worked as a lithography stripper for Green Tiger Press, a children’s publisher, for three years where he learned to design and edit images. His love for reading was encouraged by his family, fostering in him a natural affinity for narratives and storytelling. Given his Hispanic background (11), Guerrero’s frequent exploration of the Americas and their involvement with Spain during the conquest period through book art as well as in his paintings, illustrates an even deeper search for identity within the context of his subjective narratives. Guerrero’s career spans decades and includes a variety of media, including public art projects in LA and southern California. You can discover his very contemporary Mirage Fountain, located in Grand Hope Park. (7) In 2001, he exhibited at the Athenaem Music & Arts Library gallery in La Jolla, in the exhibit, “Location/Location/Location;


2 The Travel Journals of Artist Raul Guerrero/Paintings, Drawings, Prints, Photography, Artist’s Books, 1972-2001. This exhibit gives you a hint of the multi-faceted interests of Guerrero within the realm of art. Additionally, he has exhibited solo and in groups, his works have been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, here in La Jolla; and he was part of , “Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity 1900-2000” at the LACMA, in LA. You can find his work in public collections, including MOCA, Long Beach Museum of Art, and the Phoenix Museum of Art. (6) In fact, for 10 years now, he has been a temporary lecturer here at UCSD, where he teaches 1 to 2 studio classes per years, which vary in subject matter. Guerrero began to explore the possibilities of book art because he found installations and paintings to be rather limiting for rendering his ideas within a linear development. Book form allows for more “elasticity”, as he phrases it, in the inherent linear progression of ideas found in books. Subject matter represented in book form is capable of expressing the development of narrative over time as opposed to a symbolic statement grasped within a single image governing the capacity of representation in painting. In that manner a book is more flexible in its linear capacity to express multiple images relating to the author’s thoughts on the subject. (4) However, Guerrero proves he can masterfully transcend the limitations of painting in developing a visual narrative within a single symbolic image with his 1995 painting from the series Conquest of the Americas: Peru, 1524-1533; owned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla. The subject matter appropriates Velasquez’s Venus from the sixteenth century, and reinterprets and associates the female nude with the colonial landscape of Peru. In the guise of a map, the trails traversing the figure indicate the colonist’s penchant for


3 mapping out and labeling territories in the Americas. (10) Guerrero cleverly chose the desirable figure of the sensuous female, and her equally desirable wealth, as a metaphor for the domination and exploitation of Peru; demonstrating the ease in which he moves through registers and how through creative technique, overcomes the limitations and perimeters of illustrating historic narrative, grasped through a single symbolic image. Guerrero’s first book work, housed within special collections at the Geisel Library at UCSD, but not part of the current artist’s works exhibit, was created in 1978 in response to visits to the three cities of Berlin, New York, and San Diego. Guerrero’s intuitive impressions of these cities are recorded in his aptly titled book: Impressions of Three Cities: Berlin, New York, San Diego which are represented as illustrated poetic text and are explored and defined through the initial impression of the city of Berlin. On the cover of Impressions are symbols relating to the first poem inside about Berlin and World War II, seen through the eyes of a soldier. The knife stuck through the hand and the image beneath of a coiled dog tag, represents the massive death toll associated with war. (4) The book opens with Guerrero’s impression of the city of Berlin, which reads like a comic book; bullets zigzag across the page and the brilliant neonorange color further aides in expressing a mood of uncertainty and insecurity perceived through its intense tonal qualities. The poetic text opposite the imagery explores the tumult of war, and the residual energy of war apparent in the bullet-riddled walls of buildings. The buildings were actually located across from Guerrero’s Berlin studio where he absorbed his impressions of the city. (4) This impression of Berlin is referenced in his silk-screen print from 1980, titled Estudio: Berlin (also housed within special collections at Geisel) which illustrates the interior of the studio featuring Impressions


4 lying on the coffee table and serves as his viewing receptacle for his impressions of Berlin defined by the war-scarred walls. This book is the first example of Guerrero’s from this art form of symbolic visual narrative, and in this case also includes textual form to aide in clarifying Guerrero’s experience of the three cities. Only through his investigative technique, by touching the walls and inhaling the scene, is Guerrero able to connect both himself and the viewer to Berlin, with simple yet powerful visual narrative and poetic text. A more complex code of symbolic imagery without the benefit of poetic text characterizes the “Tratado de Los Pirineos” (Treaty of the Pyrenees) from 1992, a featured piece in the current exhibition in special collections. Guerrero researched the imagery for Tratado de Los Pirineos in France and Spain. While staying at his hotel in Madrid, Guerrero borrowed the heraldic crest from the hotel featuring the mountain range of the Pyrenees and used this as the cover symbol for the book. The cover, along with the rest of the book is made from hand-made rag paper soaked in the hotel bathtub to achieve the aged look of an antiquated document. (4) The individual paintings that comprise the book are done in watercolor and gouache, with the backs of the paintings taped together to fold up like an accordion. Guerrero recalled how he constructed Tratado de Los Pirineos on the floor of his hotel room in Madrid. He equates his creative experience with the same spirit of creation found in the writings of the Beat culture. According to Guerrero during a personal interview, their work was characterized by utilizing poetic textual form to capture the impressions of the moment, epitomized by the seminal book “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. The spontaneity of approach and the limited material means of expression in Beat poetry (the manuscript for Kerouac’s book was written upon


5 a roll of paper as his story unfolded) resonate in Guerrero’s Tratado, in the unconventional construction of a vast piece of work limited to a hotel-room-turned-studio and a few supplies at the local artist supply store. Tratado de Los Pirineos deals with a treaty ceding Spanish territory in the Americas to the French that was signed in 1659 and consummated in the marriage, at St. Jean d’Luce at the foot of the Pyrenees in France, between Maria Theresa, the daughter of Philip IV King of Spain, and the young king of France, Louis XIV, in 1660. By this time the 30 years war of Europe (1618-1648) was being fought solely between the Spanish and the French. As interpreted by Guerrero, the war in Europe points to issues that affected the political state and structure of the Americas, colonies governed by the Spanish. The wedding signified the pivotal turning point for the Americas, increasing the influence of the French while diminishing the influence of the Spanish. (13) Guerrero depicts in Tratado the beginning of the end for both the native cultures of the Americas and ironically their initial oppressor, the Spanish empire. The collective, subjective imagery (images he felt where relevant to expressing his investigation) compiled for Tratado juxtaposes the demise of the Americas through conquest by the Spanish and the demise of the military empire of Spain at the defeat of the French. For example, in image one, the Latin phrase “Pax Optium Perum” literally translates to a “desire for uncommon peace” which was symbolically achieved through the Treaty of the Pyrenees, while decreasing significantly the might and scope of the Spanish empire. In the following image, the sun, representing the Aztec empire brilliantly shines above an inscription in Spanish recalling, roughly, the Aztec creation myth: “When the sun arrived above the sky, then the world became dark, since the sun that had been made by the spirits only had the energy to last half


6 the day. And so it seemed as if the spirits had committed an error, the people were too big and the sun too small”. This inscription foreshadows the gross misunderstanding on the part of the Aztecs concerning the actual intentions of the Spanish Conquistadors and the unfortunate chain of events which follow, resulting in the demise of the Aztecs, and symbolically, all of the Americas. Once aware of the hostile intentions of the conquering soldiers, the Aztecs or the “small sun”, fell prey to the “big people” or the Conquistadors. Finally, in the last image included in Tratado, the demise of the Spanish empire is interpreted through a door knocker, shaped as a hand clutching a globe, signifying to Guerrero the idea of knocking upon the colonial period which was now unraveling with the advent of the Treaty of the Pyrenees. Reflecting upon his experience with this particular piece, Guerrero explains, “The pursuit of the idea [behind his visual narrative] is almost more important than the finished product itself”. (4) For Guerrero the act or process of investigation and exploration is the underlying purpose and the finished product merely reflects his clarified thoughts on the subject represented. In this way Guerrero’s intense self-examination leads to a visual language of subjective symbolism through which he manifests his thoughts. In Catacumbas De la Catedral, the second featured piece on exhibit, Guerrero fictionalized historical references in order to portray an imagined investigative adventure, shared between a mother and her anthropologist/archeologist daughter to Mexico City. (4) Done in 1993, the book is comprised of forty-three watercolor and gouache paintings with an original painting attached to the front cover of the binding. Within Catacumbas, the imagery unfolds in film story-board fashion, exhibiting a loose style in brushwork that lends to the fervor of climatic expectation as we travel along with the mother and


7 daughter through imagery depicting their environment as they experience the city and their final destination of the La Iglesia de Santa Domingo. Built around 1590, the invented catacombs in the narrative lie beneath this cathedral. (4)The imagery depicts the commencement of the tour of the catacombs; the tourists enter in slow perusal, when suddenly, the floor rumbles and quakes! Guerrero chose text to illustrate the earthquake. In the next scene from the story board, the daughter is presumably knocked out, and spirals backward into time, and from there the imagery indicates a regression of time. Dreamy, cloudy images representing the past materialize; an umbrella dress from the fifties, a reference to the Beats, till we come to the end of the unconscious dreaming and behold an Aztec warrior saving his girlfriend. The resulting pages of the story-board insinuate the idea of a possible dream through ambiguous imagery such as the lighting of a match, presumably inside the depths of the catacombs, but unconfirmed by the immediate presentation of a phone ringing and the single greeting “Bueno” on the end of the line. It’s a play on the imagination and combines historicized fiction with the ambiguity of dreams, a romantic narrative. The influence of the Beats is again apparent in Guerrero’s third narrative. The image of the Beats is actually borrowed from the cover of a copy of “On the Road” that Guerrero discovered while visiting Mexico City researching material for his Catacumbas. (4) With Catacumbas, it becomes clear that our protagonist, the daughter, represents Guerrero; her investigative approach to anthropology mirrors Guerrero’s investigative approach to art-making. Just as Guerrero would travel to a location in his art making process, so she travels in her anthropological/archeological explorations. Through the


8 process of rendering this piece Guerrero examines his own art making process, placing himself as the protagonist of his work. Guerrero’s work is characterized by an affinity for story-telling in a figural and abstract style which resonates in all his art productions and is epitomized by his artist’s books. As journalist Hunter Drhojowska-Philp remarked, “[Guerrero] blends art history with social history and fiction”. (11) Through his visual narratives, Guerrero seeks to establish a link between the historical and the contemporary, vividly bringing the historicized narratives to life. Through his exploratory methods, Guerrero is capable of distilling his thoughts into visual symbols which establish a lasting connection between the art and the viewer.


Selected Bibliography: 1. Great Events from History: Modern European Series. Magill 1973, v.1. 1469-1799 2. Guerrero, Raul M. Catacumbas de La Catedral. Mexico, D.F. 1993 3. Guerrero, Raul M. Impressions of Three Cities: Berlin, New York, San Diego. Santa Monica, Calif. 1979 4. Guerrero, Raul M. Interview by artist. San Diego, California, 7 March 2003 5. Guerrero, Raul M. Tratado de Los Pirineos. Madrid, 1992 6. “Location/Location/Location: The Travel Journals of Artist Raul Guerrero on View at the Athenaeum”. La Prensa San Diego. www.laprensasandiego.org/archive/september21/raoul.htm (21 Sept. 2001) 7. Mirage Fountain, Grand Hope Park. www.usc.edu/isd/archives/la/pubart/Downtown/Grandhope/Mirage2.html (1993) 8. Rempel, Gerhard. “The Thirty Years-War”. www.mars.acnet.wnec.edu/~grempel/courses/wc2/lectures/30yearswar.html 9. TenBerge, Yvette. “San Diego Artist Explores History of The American Continent”. La Prensa San Diego. www.laprensa-sandiego.org/archive/june14-02/raul.htm (14 June 2002) Vertical files from the library of Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego: 10. Chattopadhyay, Colette. “Raul M. Guerrero at MCA, San Diego”. Artweek, November 1998 11. Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. “Social Studies, With a Twist”. Los Angeles Times, 19 July 1998 12. Pincus, Robert L. “Guerrero goes solo in career overview”. San Diego UnionTribune, 24 July 1998 13. Pincus, Robert L. “Subtle Connections from Raul Guerrero”. San Diego UnionTribune, 9 August 1998 14. Pincus, Robert L. “Symbolic journeys to places of intrigue”. San Diego UnionTribune, 12 February 1995


Additional images: Guerrero, Raul M. Estudio: Berlin, 1980, silk-screen print, Special Collections, Geisel Library, UCSD. Guerrero, Raul M. Conquest of the Americas: Peru, 1524-1533, 1995, oil on linen, Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla.


Guerrero and The Art of Visual Narrative