Carlos Almaraz, “Sunset Crash” (1982) courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection (© Carlos Almaraz Estate and photo courtesy the Collection of Cheech Marin)

LOS ANGELES — Carlos Almaraz: Playing with Fire, curated by Howard N. Fox and currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is the artist’s first major survey of paintings from his brief but productive studio practice. Almaraz was one of the most influential Los Angeles artists of the 1970s and 1980s, and is most widely known for his work as an activist and muralist in East LA, and as a member of the collective Los Four. The exhibition is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA an initiative exploring Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles. This major retrospective is a worthy addition to the initiative, since it focuses on the less examined but rich painting practice Almaraz pursued upon leaving making murals.

Carlos Almaraz, “Echo Park Bridge at Night” (1989) the Buck Collection through the University of California, Irvine (© Carlos Almaraz Estate; photo by Isabella McGrath)

Organized thematically, the exhibition includes over 60 works drawn from public and private collections. Since Almaraz oscillated between a variety of themes throughout his career, Fox opted to curate the show around five major subjects rather than the archetypal chronological arrangement. In this way Fox’s curatorial arrangement mimics the artist’s actual studio practice, while simultaneously providing viewers with deeply personal yet accessible wall texts that speak to the curator’s investment in paying homage to an artist whose contributions to the Los Angeles art community have been somewhat overlooked.

Almaraz’s paintings are visually arresting canvases built up with dynamic brushstrokes, textured surfaces, and saturated colors that pulsate with energy. There is a Fauvist quality to his work evident in his jagged, expressive brushstrokes and penchant for garish colors. The star of the show is Almaraz’s four panel vista, “Echo Park Lake” (1982), the parts of which had not previously been reunited in over 30 years. Situated in the galleries devoted to the theme of “Los Angeles, Delirious and Edenic,” the tetraptych painting “Echo Park Lake” is a dreamy ode to one of the artist’s frequently painted and favorite parts of East LA. In this canvas, the connection to Claude Monet’s renderings of lily ponds is evident in its use of color to capture time.

Echo Park in the 1980s, as depicted by Almaraz in works like “Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit Go to Town” (1982) was a scenic, urban oasis that provided reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city. With an amalgamation of vivid hues and ragged strokes that burst with visual energy and activity, this painting is a city dreamscape, a seductive and mysterious ode to a city that Almaraz had a contested relationship with.

Carlos Almaraz, “Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit Go to Town” (1982) collection of Robert M. DeLapp, Los Angeles (© Carlos Almaraz Estate; photo courtesy Robert M. DeLapp Gallery)

Born in Mexico City, Almaraz moved with his family to United States as a child, first settling in Chicago and then relocating to East LA when he was about 10 years old. Almaraz was interested in art from an early age and studied at California State University, LA, Loyola Marymount University, and Otis College of Art and Design. He moved to New York City as a young adult in the 1960s (where he lived with Richard Serra and Nancy Graves), but found the East Coast penchant for conceptual art and minimalism restrictive and unsettling, so he moved back to Los Angeles disappointed.

However, upon his return to the West Coast, Almaraz struggled with his identity as a Latin American in the US and became deeply invested in the Chicano rights movement. In part he was motivated by a near death experience: After struggling with alcohol abuse Almaraz fell ill with pancreatitis. Only six months after his recovery his younger brother passed away suddenly at the age of 22. Almaraz felt he could redeem the life of his brother through mural painting and reconstruct his own life in the process. His public paintings of this period dealt with subjects of social injustice and Mesoamerican traditions in an effort to visualize Latin-American civic identity and promote awareness of the associated political movement.

His move to public art later proved equally restrictive to Almaraz when Chicano muralists were mislabeled as regional folk artists by art critics who favored studio artists and more conceptual practices. Almaraz, who self-identified as a Chicano artist, came to find this label too essentialist and the muralist platform limiting, so he again returned to the studio for the next 11 years of his life before his untimely death due to AIDS-related complications in 1989.

Carlos Almaraz, “Growing City” (1988) Elsa and Maya Almaraz (© Carlos Almaraz Estate; photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA, by Robert Wedemeyer)

Not surprisingly, life, death, and spirituality play a huge role in Almaraz’s paintings upon returning to the studio. In the gallery that presents work under the banner of “Bad News,” mortality is most vividly depicted in his well-known series of car crash paintings, alongside other images of destruction and violence. Painted during a time of turbulent change in the social fabric of Southern California, Almaraz’s depictions of fiery car crashes on freeways, shootouts, and burning buildings emulate the turmoil of those times. “Crash in Phthalo Green” (1984) is one such work that renders in thick impasto and energetic angles a dramatic car accident as a sublime phenomenon against a Los Angeles sunset and mountainscape.

Almaraz’s work is characterized by a mix of the real and unreal, representational and expressive. The last couple galleries toward the end of the exhibition highlight his more erotic and spiritual work that continue the artist’s proclivity for dreamlike compositions. These paintings of his own psyche reveal Almaraz’s innermost dialogues regarding coming to terms with his mortality. Carlos Almaraz: Playing with Fire is a tour de force retrospective that does due dilligence for a painter who contributed a rich body of work to the Los Angeles art community, and is a special opportunity to see the wealth of his practice. Fox’s curatorial work gets beneath the surface of an artist who was more known as a Chicano muralist and reveals to us a bounty of complex works that undo any notions of this artist as a simple, static personality.

Carlos Almaraz: Playing with Fire is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles) through December 3rd.

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Olivia Gauthier

Olivia Gauthier is a freelance writer and M.A. Candidate in Art History and Curatorial Studies at Hunter College. Her interests include feminism, technology, and figures overlooked by canonical narratives.