For much of his life, artist Raul Guerrero has thought about his place in the world. He was born and raised in National City, California, a coastal town that’s part of the San Diego metropolitan region. After a year studying art at a local community college, Guerrero, then only 19, began hitchhiking through Mexico, from Tijuana to the Yucatan Peninsula, hoping that his ancestral homeland might offer some answers.
“I was looking for myself, you might say,” Guerrero recently recalled during an interview with ARTnews. “As a Mexican American, I never really felt like I belonged anywhere, culturally speaking. I thought maybe Mexico will be the place. Over the years, I’ve realized Mexico is not my country—my country’s the U.S. At the same time, my affinity to this country was blocked off because of the cultural environment that was very Eurocentric and Anglo-centric.”
This quest has informed his art practice in the years since his first visit to Mexico in the mid-1960s. Guerrero said that a set of underlying questions guiding his practice are: “Where do I belong? What am I about? What’s the context that I came out of?”
Guerrero’s artistic journey will be the subject of a forthcoming solo exhibition opening in July at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, which has added the artist to its roster. (The gallery will also offer six works by Guerrero as part of Art Basel’s “OVR: Portals,” which launches on June 16.) For his forthcoming show at the gallery, Guerrero has created a suite of entirely new paintings in varying sizes. When we spoke by Zoom in May, they lined the walls of his L.A. studio. A majority of them are inspired by earlier works that he had painted over at some point—he felt that they weren’t where he wanted them to be in terms of technique. He sees this part of the show as a “synopsis” of sorts of his previous explorations.
“His work is an exploration of Los Angeles as a hyper-complex and diverse space,” dealer David Kordansky said. “For the show, he’s not only mapping the invention of California, in particular Southern California, but he’s creating these bridges between where the Indigenous and the Northern Mexican collide.”
Some of the pieces are Guerrero’s own take on historical fiction, “a reconciling of fact and fiction to create a representation of the things that I’m thinking about,” he said. Two paintings imagine the shipwreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which sank during a 1622 hurricane off the Florida Keys while en route to Spain from the empire’s colonies in the Americas. Guerrero envisions it as seen from the ocean floor, with the ship’s treasures on full view. “When it sank,” Guerrero said, “in my mind, this is what happened.”
Another new painting, Exile: The Untold Story of Francisco Madero (2021), depicts a revolutionary who initiated the Mexican Revolution in 1911 but was assassinated in 1913. Guerrero also has a personal connection to Madero; his maternal grandfather grew up and worked on Madero’s estate until he moved to the United States in 1896. In the painting, Madero is seated at a desk looking at what appears to be a pre-Colombian statue but is actually a trinket that Guerrero bought in Tijuana. Hanging above Madero is a portrait of the revolutionary. “This is sort of a fictional figure that could be Francisco Madero,” he said.
Other works are direct copies of work by likes of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, including a portrait by Rivera of his second wife Guadalupe Marin. Scenes by white American artists, like Alfred Jacob Miller and George Catlin, who painted Native Americans in the Great Plains region, are also appropriated. One of those paintings recasts an image of a buffalo hunt by Catlin, which Guerrero appropriated to highlight the U.S. government’s “outright attempt to create a genocide against the Indigenous population by eliminating their food source, which is the buffalo,” he told me. While making that work, he asked himself: “What do we really know about history?”
In his family growing up, Guerrero said, “there was always some sort of artistic sensibility going that I think affected the way I see the world.” That didn’t necessarily make him believe he would be an artist, even though an older brother and a cousin were both artistically inclined. During the summers as a teen, Guerrero’s parents sent him to pick grapes to earn some money. Around that time, he started thinking about what he might do with his life and came to the conclusion that he wanted to be an artist.
After high school, Guerrero enrolled at Southwestern College in the nearby city of Chula Vista to study visual arts, where he had John Baldessari as a professor. Guerrero didn’t get the best of grades and soon left school for his sojourn throughout Mexico. After he had traveled much of the country, he returned to Mexico City and took classes in ceramics at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes for a few months.
Upon his return to the U.S. in 1964, at the height of the Vietnam War, Guerrero learned that a draft notice had been waiting for him. If he wasn’t enrolled in a U.S. school, it said, he would have to report for basic training. Guerrero’s cousin was already a student at the legendary Chouinard Art Institute in L.A., and suggested he apply for a spot. It was a gambit that paid off: Guerrero was accepted, and avoided being drafted.
In 1969, the year before he graduated from Chouinard, Guerrero questioned what he wanted to do as an artist. He found an answer in Marcel Duchamp, whose famed 1963 retrospective he saw at the Pasadena Art Museum. Guerrero began making installations reliant upon ready-made objects. A sculptural installation comprising a body cast of the artist (made in collaboration with Ed Kienholz) and other elements, an installation resembling an inverted nylon pyramid, and a sculpture in which a Yaqui mask was mounted to a motor that rotated it at 15 rpms count among Guerrero’s earliest mature works. Then, after a little over a decade, Guerrero’s work moved in an entirely different direction.
“Eventually I began thinking that I needed a different way of expressing my thoughts, because the given object has limitations—it’s not as plastic as something that you might create, like a painting,” he said. “I needed something that would allow me to introduce color, form, movement, and narrative.”
In 1984, Guerrero returned to Oaxaca and rented a studio space there for six months, during which time he taught himself painting. Though he had gone to one of the most respected art schools in the U.S., Chouinard was more focused on an artwork’s ideas than its aesthetics, so he had never learned painting techniques.
When he arrived at the bed and breakfast he was to stay at in Oaxaca, another artist was finishing up his own stay in the inn’s studio.
Guerrero asked him, “How do you get started with a painting?”
To which the fellow artist replied, “Well, you work from the back forward.”
“That’s all he said, nothing else,” Guerrero recalled.
So Guerrero bought his painting materials and books that focused on technique and just began experimenting on the canvas. It took him about two months “to get into the swing of things.”
The paintings he created there became an examination of Oaxaca, his own personal interpretation of the city based on his time there and the conversations he had with the area’s residents. In one painting, a pre-Colombian pyramid is rendered bright red and surrounded by various lush flora and fauna. In another, an Indigenous mask is pictured floating in mid-air in a blue forest as a bullfrog looks on.
This approach became one that Guerrero relied upon often: make paintings about a certain place based on time spent there, mixed with fantastical elements that further excavate its history. Other locales he took as his subject matter were Venice and Tijuana, and after completing those, he soon set out to Iowa, which he thought “would be like going back in time and seeing the authentic Anglo before he comes out to California,” he said.
On his way back to California from Iowa, he ended up in the Black Hills of the Dakotas, where he realized that everything that he knew about this place came from the movies, typically Westerns. He quickly began creating art about this place as well.
“Up until that point, the Black Hills seemed to be more mythical than real,” he said. “But once there, I’m in that reality. It introduced me to this idea that our reality is informed by the media, and then that’s the way we filter our history.”
One of the bodies of work Guerrero is presenting at Kordansky this summer features images of people at bars. “When you go to a bar and sit there, you have a drink and commiserate about life,” he said. Among those paintings is a portrait of the bartender Ruben Rueda, who worked at the famed Hollywood restaurant Musso & Frank Grill for 50 years before he died in 2019.
But these paintings are not merely bar scenes—they’re also far more than that. This body of work, taken together with the other works that will feature in the show, represents Guerrero’s attempt to map what he views as the real history of Southern California, accounting for the region’s first Indigenous populations and the Spanish conquistadors, as well as the region’s relationship to both Mexico and the white settlers who arrived there as part of Manifest Destiny. Speaking of the people who attend these watering holes, Guerrero said, “It’s the historical images that created them, that gave them their contexts. You turn around, and you can see that history in the beyond.”
And has Guerrero figured out where he belongs in that beyond? “Absolutely, I settled that about yesterday,” he said with a laugh. Then he got serious and said he came to the realization somewhere between five and eight years ago. “I’m not Mexican, but at the same time I’m not Anglo. I’m a hybrid that lives in this country, and I embrace it fully.”