Bridging the gap
Rogelio Gutierrez reaches across cultural divide with fun, colorful art
As a native Californian and first-generation Mexican-American, artist Rogelio Gutierrez experienced serious culture shock when he moved to Indianapolis to obtain his graduate degree from the Herron School of Art and Design.
“I’d never been to the Midwest before,” said Gutierrez, a visiting printmaking professor at Chico State who received his undergraduate degree from Long Beach State. “Moving from the L.A. Area and to downtown Indianapolis, my first thought was, ‘Where’s all the Latino people?’ Then I found that as soon as you leave downtown the Latino community is thriving.”
This experience spurred Gutierrez to start a public art campaign called Bienvenidos a Indianapolis, which placed billboard-sized works with that slogan in front of an image of a bed of cactus throughout Indianapolis and Bloomington: “It was kind of campaign to bridge the gap between the Latino community and the greater Indianapolis community,” he said.
“At that time Arizona was trying to pass the SB 1070 law, to basically make racial profiling legal, and Indiana was trying to pass a similar law called SB 590,” Gutierrez continued. “I was working at a golf course while going to grad school, so I had a lot of Latino co-workers, some documented and some not. They were getting scared. People were starting to flee Arizona because of the law, and some in Indiana were thinking they might have to do the same thing. So Bienvenidos was also a response to that, saying, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it, welcome, we’re a country founded by immigrants and if this is your home, don’t be afraid, don’t leave.’”
This spirit of playful politics also informs Gutierrez’s first Chico show, El Chico de California (“The California Boy”), which opens at 1078 Gallery this week alongside Colleen Toledano’s Thin Red Line exhibit (reception Friday, March 16, 5-7 p.m.). The mixed-media show includes screen-printed and wooden sculptural works, including “Reconstruction,” a series of familiar street signs with some words replaced with Spanish: “Some of it appears racial at first or might make people feel uncomfortable,” he said. “The work appears pretty aggressive, but the way it’s handled is kind of child-like, so it’s a balance of serious and fun and friendly.”
Another piece is “Christmas Cactus,” a decorated, lit-up, wood-and-canvas cactus sculpture planted in pinto beans.
“After being on my Midwest hiatus the last three years it’s been nice to be home, and I’ve been traveling up and down the state since I got back, visiting friends and family in Northern, Central and Southern California, the Bay Area, L.A., all over,” Gutierrez said of the show’s inspiration. “When I was a kid my dad loved cars, and we always had a bunch of them; we’d buy and sell and trade and hustle cars all over the state.
“I started getting nostalgic and thinking about all the landmarks I remember traveling around with him, like hand-painted billboards and old buildings and random things that have been around since I was a kid. Part of it is also the thoughts I had as a child that remind me of all things kind of colorful.”
Gutierrez’s work is marked by its use of bold, contrasting colors: “The colors also come from the culture,” he said. “I grew up going to Mexico a lot, and always think of the homemade toys painted bright colors that children and families sell on the street. They were kind of janky but seemed kind of legit because the colors were fun, even though the way they were made wasn’t very sophisticated. That’s where the color and my aesthetic come from.”
While not as disparate as the Midwest, Gutierrez said he sees a similar cultural separation locally: “I think I was expecting a larger Latino culture, but at the same time I know there’s small towns all around that do have a more noticeable Latino presence,” he said. “I think Chico isn’t necessarily diverse, but I feel like it’s open to diversity and different cultures.”