Carlos Almaraz: Playing with Fire

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The amazing thing about the bursting-with-energy paintings by famous Los Angeles artist Carlos Almaraz is that you can swear the oil paint has still not completely dried there. And nothing stands still.

(T) Carlos Almaraz, “Sunset Crash,” 1982
Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection
© Carlos Almaraz Estate
Photo courtesy the Collection of Cheech Marin
(B) Artist Carlos Almaraz
Photo courtesy of Elsa Flores

Cars are crashing off freeways. Downtown skyscrapers bend, either under the pressure of wind, or dancing – difficult to say. If you didn’t know that Carlos Almaraz (1941-1989) died almost 30 years ago, you would believe that his images capture the explosive energy of our city as it is today.

Carlos Almaraz, “Growing City,” 1988
© Carlos Almaraz Estate
Photo by Robert Wedemeyer
© Museum Associates / LACMA

Los Angeles County Museum of Art is presenting a long overdue retrospective of his works, and Howard N. Fox, the museum's emeritus curator of contemporary art, has done an excellent job, gathering 65 paintings and drawings by the artist from various public and private collections.

Installation view of “Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz”
Carlos Almaraz, “Echo Park Lake, no. 1 – 4,” 1982

Here, we can see Almaraz's monumental four-panel landscape, "Echo Park Lake" (1984), reunited for the first time in 30 years. This operatic, iconic image of Echo Park Lake, at different times of day, presents it not only as the neighborhood where the artist lived, but also as the place he celebrated as the soul of the Chicano community.

Installation view of “Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz”
Carlos Almaraz, “City Jaguar,” 1988
© Carlos Almaraz Estate

In the 1970s, Almaraz became known as one of the political activists and co-founders of the Chicano artist collective "Los Four." But, in the mid-80s, when I had the good luck to visit him at his studio and get to know him, Carlos was more focused on expressing his personal passions through his art.

Installation view of “Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz”
Carlos Almaraz, “Magic Green Stage,” 1982
© Carlos Almaraz Estate

The sensuality and sexuality of many works in the exhibition are expressed not only through images of nude figures – most of them male – but through the vivacity of saturated colors and fervent brushstrokes.

Installation view of "Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz"
(T) Carlos Almaraz, "That Guy," 1983
(B) Carlos Almaraz, “The Struggle of Mankind,” 1984

It's interesting to compare two images exhibited next to each other – one, "That Guy" (1983), a three-quarter length oil painting of a frontal male nude, the other, "The Struggle of Mankind" (1984), a pastel drawing of two naked men wrestling. The oil painting with heavy impasto brushstrokes, of a man standing still, is full of vitality and energy, while the more realistic drawing of two entangled, fighting men somehow doesn’t have the same passion.

Installation view of “Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz”
(L) Carlos Almaraz, “Naked Jester,” 1988
(R) Carlos Almaraz, “Buffo’s Lament,” 1987

Yes, some of the Almaraz artworks feature a "highly suggestive… homoerotic engagement" (LACMA). And, still, I find more drama and sensuality within his much more restrained images – such as "Buffo's Lament," featuring a clownish character from Italian operas. Here Buffo stands, dressed in white, on a stage in front of a red curtain. Behind the curtain, we can glimpse an artist's studio with a live nude female model, and someone, maybe Carlos Almaraz himself, sitting with his back to us, working on his painting.

Traditionally, when one thinks about iconic images of Los Angeles, Sunset Strip photographs by Ed Ruscha pop into your mind, along with paintings of pools by David Hockney, and paintings by Richard Diebenkorn inspired by Ocean Park Blvd in Santa Monica. Trust me, if you have never seen Carlos Almaraz's works before, this exhibition will burn his images of Los Angeles into your mind. And that is probably the reason why the title of this exhibition is Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz.

Note: All photos are by Edward Goldman unless otherwise indicated.



Benjamin Gottlieb