Last fall, Roberto Gil de Montes had his first solo exhibition in Mexico, Temporada de lluvias, at kurimanzutto, Mexico City. On the occasion of the exhibition, we presented a complementary selection of Gil de Montes’s historical artworks and archival materials at the gallery and online. The display traced six decades of the artist’s career, from his formative years as a student at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles to more recent years in La Peñita, a small fishing town on the Pacific Coast of Nayarit, Mexico.
Over the past year, we continued our research through numerous conversations with Gil de Montes and members of his community that are both integral to and have significantly contributed to the story of his life and work. Additionally, we consulted institutional and personal archives and spent time in the artist’s studio and home in La Peñita. Concurrent with the opening of Gil de Montes’s solo exhibition, Reverence in Blue, at kurimanzutto, New York, we present the second iteration of From the Archive: Roberto Gil de Montes. You can view the display at our New York gallery and in the visual essay below.
Gil de Montes was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1950, where he was influenced by the murals of José Clemente Orozco and the celebrations surrounding Día de Muertos at a young age. In 1965, he relocated to East Los Angeles with his family, where he became aware of the emerging Chicano Movement. He enrolled in Roosevelt High School and his education is enriched through visiting lectures by Noah Purifoy and Betye Saar. Years later, Jan Baum Gallery in Los Angeles represents both Gil de Montes and Saar, and they participate in many group exhibitions together.
After graduating from Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles, in 1968, Gil de Montes spent two years studying photography at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. As part of a class assignment, he created a self-portrait in which he painted his face white. The photograph begins Gil de Montes’s ongoing use of masks in his artistic practice and illustrates early questioning around his cultural identity as a Mexican living in the United States.
Otis Art Institute
As an undergraduate student at Otis Art Institute, Gil de Montes primarily focused on figurative drawing and painting. His sketchbook drawings from 1973 were made during drawing classes with Joseph Mugnaini and Charles White, who provided their students with traditional training in the medium. For the exhibition Twelve and Nine at Otis Student Gallery, he presented a twelve-part installation that featured wooden cutouts painted on both sides. The cutouts depict mythic figures wearing masks and surrounded by entwined serpents, all suspended from wires.
When he started the graduate program at Otis, the conceptual art movement in Los Angeles was burgeoning. Inspired by the teachings of Lynda Benglis, Guy de Cointet, and Joan Jonas, Gil de Montes began to experiment with minimalist painting, employing materials such as wax and encaustic, as well as delving into performance and photography.
Lace (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions)
As a young artist, Gil de Montes actively participated in the Chicano Art Movement in East Los Angeles and played a role as one of the thirteen founders of LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions). The experimental art space, which continues to operate today, was established in 1978 to serve as a platform for artists who were then considered radical, including those involved in performance and video art.
At LACE, Gil de Montes took part in and organized several exhibitions, including a No Movie exhibition with the avant-garde performance collective Asco. In this exhibition, he presented the work Tongue Tied (1978), a three-by-four-foot gelatin silver print depicting a figure bound in a white sheet in a field. Electrical wires emerged from the figure’s face and were connected to a pile of goats’ tongues resting on the floor. The following year, he curated Testimonios de Latinoamérica, with Felipe Ehrenberg, an exhibition that showcased the communication methods of Latin American artists. The exhibition was originally presented at Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil in Mexico City.
Eighteen Months in Mexico City
In 1979, art historian and curator Carla Stellweg invited Gil de Montes to move to Mexico City to work at Museo de Arte Moderno and to guest edit a special issue of Artes Visuales devoted to Chicano/a art. Artes Visuales was the first contemporary art magazine in Mexico and the first bilingual arts magazine in Latin America. Among the artists featured in the issue were his friend and mentor Carlos Almaraz, whom he had met during graduate school at Otis Art Institute, and Almaraz’s wife and fellow artist, Elsa Flores.
During the eighteen months he lived in Mexico City, Gil de Montes continued experiments in photography. He initiated a practice of painting on large-scale black-and-white photographs, which he termed “sporadic photomurals.” And example of this technique is Mexico City (1981), which blends photography and painting to expose the city’s pollution. While in Mexico, he took part in the significant group exhibition Hecho en Latinoamérica at Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes. In this exhibition, he presented a series of photographs, including Eddie Domínguez and Hose (1978). Domínguez, Gil de Montes’s partner, was featured in many of his early photographic works.
Return to Los Angeles
After returning to Los Angeles, Gil de Montes resumed painting. Cowboy vs. Myth (1984) exemplifies the work he produced throughout the 1980s. In the painting, an American cowboy dressed in black takes aim at a crocodile with a who has the head of a human. The crocodile alludes to the Aztec myth of the crocodile that survived the earth’s flooding and became the bedrock on which the earth was repopulated. The small-scale canvas and the pink, wooden frame adorned with guns collaged onto it reflect the artist’s renewed connection with his Mexican heritage, particularly folk art, and his Los Angeles surroundings.
The work was featured in the 1984 group show Small Wonder at Jan Baum Gallery. It marked the first of many group and solo exhibitions in which he would participate with Jan Baum and other institutions throughout the 1980s. Additionally, ten works by Gil de Montes were displayed in the influential group exhibition and accompanying catalogue, Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors (1987), organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The exhibition was curated by John Beardsley and Jane Livingston, and the catalogue essay was authored by the writer Octavio Paz, whom Gil de Montes had met a few years prior. The show traveled to various institutions across the United States, including the Brooklyn Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
Fear and Loss
In the 1990s, Gil de Montes made paintings in response to the impact the HIV/AIDS epidemic on himself and his community. The artist explained that the mystical iconography in Behind the Eight Ball (1991) paralleled his feelings of “being in a difficult position in time.” Fear of loss and abandonment reached its peak for the artists, especially following the passing of Carlos Almaraz.
Behind the Eight Ball was exhibited at his solo exhibition at Carla Stellweg Latin American & Contemporary Art Gallery in New York. Themes of death also occupied his 1991 solo show at Jan Baum Gallery, with works made on old Mexican retablos, such as Retablo del Diablo (1991), where a figure blows air at a disembodied heart.
Gil de Montes also began a series of works referred to as “screen paintings.” The screens, which have recently resurfaced in his work, depict individuals veiled behind floral screens, symbolizing the physical and emotional distancing resulting from the epidemic. Screen (1996) was acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., and was immediately displayed in the traveling exhibition Arte Latino: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum from 2000 to 2002.
Five Years in San Francisco
In 2005, Gil de Montes had his final solo show at Jan Baum Gallery, where he exhibited works made during the five years he lived in San Francisco. The fractured face depicted in Oscar (2005) drew inspiration from the malevolence portrayed in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and the disturbing photographs of members of the United States Army and CIA committing war crimes against detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The concept of observing a fractured personality reflected on a person’s face intrigued the artist, leading to the development of what Leah Ollman described in her review of the show for the Los Angeles Times as “faces composed of a splintered mosaic of jagged planes of rust and slate and gold.”
La Peñita de Jaltemba
Gil de Montes first visited La Peñita in 1985 and immediately fell in love with the coastal fishing town. By 1993, he and Domínguez bought a home there, and the scenic landscape of La Peñita began to feature more prominently in his artwork. Coral Island, which he can still see from the window of his home, became a recurring motif in his work and was the primary focus of Under Venus (1999). In 2006, La Peñita became their permanent residence.
The gridded composition in Turtle (2014) incorporates imagery inspired by Gil de Montes’s life in La Peñita, including the neighboring Wixárika indigenous community, also known as Huicholes, who have a strong presence in Nayarit, Mexico. During this period, he began merging Wixárika iconography with his own visual motifs. “I was trying to appropriate a way of working that had to do with the Huichol,” the artist explained. “But the Huichol have a narrative. I don’t have a narrative, mine was purely visual…coming up with ideas and symbols and putting them into my paintings.” In 2014, Turtle was exhibited in Hecho en México (Made in Mexico) at Lora Schlesinger Gallery in Santa Monica, California. This marked Gil de Montes’s first solo exhibition in ten years.
Gil de Montes still resides and creates art in La Peñita. Imagery related to the Wixárika culture continues to fill his canvases, as seen in Boy Deer (2023), which is currently on view in his exhibition Reverence in Blue at kurimanzutto, New York.
Reverence in Blue is on view until December 22, 2023.