By Lou Fancher
Anger and sadness lurk in the paintings of artist Luis Gutierrez. Sentiments smolder fierce red behind a rough-edged wall of black acrylic paint in Red Emerging, or ache their way past relentless pale gray drips to the surface of Misty Morning. But rotating 180 degrees in a gallery in the Hearst Museum on the Moraga campus of Saint Mary's College, a visitor is confronted by the Los Gatos artist's jubilant assemblages, Heartfelt and Help Us Stay Alive. Bracketed with rulers or toys and filled with memorabilia, photographs, and found artifacts that shift gears entirely to project joy, humor, enthusiasm, and wit, it's almost as if two separate artists are at hand.
The 82-year-old native of Pittsburg now defies narrow definition.
Gutierrez was born in 1933 at the height of the Depression. Losing his father when he was 5 years old, Gutierrez found his mother strict, even harsh. "She didn't offer loving comfort," he recalls. "I don't remember hugging her as a kid. She didn't want me to get too close to her because she thought that would make me weak. She's 105 years old and still lives in Pittsburg. You should go talk to her."
The invitation is both frightening and fascinating, not unlike his darkest, stormiest paintings. Gutierrez says there was no art, not even books, in his childhood home. Unexpectedly, he interrupts his tale of an emotionally barren upbringing to speak in gentle, affectionate tones about his mother's enchiladas, tostadas, and hearty Mexican caldos. "She cooked; that was probably her main artistic life," he says.
Despite his mother's severe governance, Gutierrez found independence and joy in copying Disney characters and cartoons. Self-described as naive, he says he stuttered as a kid and was thrust into seriousness by his quest to find a father figure. He graduated from high school with a Bank of America merit award in art and found his first surrogate "father" in art teacher Harriet Middleton while attending
Diablo Valley College. Middleton encouraged him to pursue his studies and to complete a bachelor's degree at San Jose State University. Graduate studies earned in Mexico at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende solidified his formal education. Influenced by Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and the Bay Area Figurative Movement, he produced work that offered an intriguing combination of indigenous Latin-American influences, Bay Area Beat- and Punk-inspired intentions, and formal Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. His art has been exhibited in San Francisco at the Legion of Honor and the de Young, Santa Clara's Triton Museum, and the San Jose Museum of Art. Gutierrez taught art at San Jose City College from 1969 to 1995 where he tried unconventional methods like having students draw with a nondominant hand or turn a shameful secret into an art work
"I gained a maturity teaching at the college. Before that, all I thought about was me, me, me. How I had no money. How was I going to paint? When I got that job, that changed."
Gutierrez learned to express his second gift, teaching, but it didn't happen easily. "I had confidence about teaching technique, but I was too severe with my students, especially women students. They had a feminine statement in their paintings that I [mistook] as weakness. I was looking through a tunnel and wasn't seeing outside of that. I had a lot to learn as a human being." The students eventually rebelled, and Gutierrez benefited from a second mentor in his life, Joe Zirker.
"He learned from my greater teaching experience," says Zirker, 91. "We immediately had mutual admiration. He saw I didn't really teach drawing. I showed the students, then allowed them to explore."
Like Gutierrez, who paints three to seven hours a day, Zirker continues to create art and says Gutierrez's greatest contribution to students was "himself as an example." Zirker is pleased about the teaching skills his younger colleague developed, but it is Gutierrez's artwork that draws Zirker into greater eloquence. "From the very beginning, I admired his use of color. It's really exquisite, quite beautiful. He's able to make one see his internal emotion through the combination of formal elements."
"Art is about feeling. The more you explain, the further you get from it," Gutierrez says.
His goal with each painting is to not repeat himself, to locate "newness that consumes the whole canvas." Sometimes, he paints a surface, then hoses it off before it is dry. Always, traces of the previous layers remain. "I'll do that up to 15 times," he says. He rarely intends to create dark paintings. People who have a hard time with his darker work "think it's morbid and relate black to nothingness," he says. To him, black is colorful, perhaps inevitable. "The paintings direct me as much as I direct them."
The assemblages are at first glance different, like miniature islands on which meticulously selected objects that he thinks of as "tiny sculptures" happily jockey for position. Amid photographs and tongue-in-cheek jokes like the glued down "instructions for use on other side" notice, organizing elements—rivet-like screws in a row, a packet of mechanical pencils—ingeniously control the chaos. Depending on the viewer's focus, the assemblages suggest jocularity, poignance, or happenstance.
Even so, there's a rough-and-tumble foreboding layer to the assemblages that mirrors his paintings' muscular, overlapping brushstrokes. Art, he says, helps him understand himself in relationship to the world. "I'm a very passionate, sensitive person. That goes into my art. I push it with anger. I try to lose myself in the process. There's so much depth in me and in every other person. It has to be unveiled by doing something you're passionate about. You discover mystery about yourself, the sacred humanity. That's what I discover."