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‘Victor Estrada: Purple Mexican’ paints LA-influenced artistic evolution

Dressed in a blue shirt, Victor Estrada, a lecturer of painting at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture sits in a chair outside. Works from Estrada spanning his over 30 year career, are on display in the exhibition, “Victor Estrada: Purple Mexican” which opened Oct. 6 at the ArtCenter College of Design’s Peter and Merle Mullin Gallery. (Courtesy of Juan Posada/ArtCenter College of Design)

“Victor Estrada: Purple Mexican”

Victor Estrada

Peter and Merle Mullin Gallery

Oct. 3 - Feb. 25

By David Egan

Oct. 16, 2022 11:59 p.m.

More than 30 years of work and five years of curatorial planning have culminated in “Victor Estrada: Purple Mexican.”

Curator Marco Rios said he wanted to organize a survey show of artist and lecturer of painting Victor Estrada’s work since he first met Estrada more than five years ago. Rios said he was familiar with Estrada’s work from catalogs of “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” a seminal 1992 exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art that featured Estrada’s sculpture “Baby/Baby.” The show centers around 40 of the artist’s drawings that have never been exhibited before and opened Oct. 6 at the ArtCenter College of Design – where Estrada earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts.

“While we were visiting for the shows, one day (Estrada) just suddenly appeared with a box of drawings,” Rios said. “I was fascinated by this exterior and interior idea, that there was this bifurcation in terms of his body of work.”

The drawings represent a private dimension of Estrada’s work the public has not seen, Rios said. For curatorial assistant William J. Simmons, the drawings have a diaristic quality, suggesting a daily artistic practice that serves as a record of the artist’s visual motifs. Simmons said the drawings in “Purple Mexican” reveal the variety of Estrada’s artistic output and his command of color, and their fantastical scenes exhibit his thematic interests in identity, gender and art history.

[Related: Henry Baldwin finds fulfillment in creating patterned, multi-material paintings]

Displayed on a purple wall in the middle of ArtCenter’s Peter and Merle Mullin Gallery, the drawings reflect Estrada’s inner monologue, Rios said. The Mullin Gallery, built to display automobiles, appealed to ArtCenter Senior Curator Julie Joyce to showcase “Purple Mexican” because of the contrast between the space’s clinical, precise atmosphere and Estrada’s more chaotic style, she said.

Estrada’s drawings are central to his body of work, Joyce said, as they inform his sculptures and paintings, which populate the rest of the gallery. Estrada said the paintings are more contemporary and strike a contrast with the older drawings exhibited. Estrada’s paintings, rendered with globs and layers of paint, were the focus of recent solo exhibitions of his work, Joyce said. As a young professional in the art world, Joyce attended the 1992 “Helter Skelter” opening – but said she wants to highlight Estrada’s career beyond that legacy.

“(Estrada) was part of that art world, that ‘Helter Skelter’ group, for better or for worse,” Joyce said. “But his work was also informed by so much more: … Chicano art movements, ASCO (art collective), … LA punk rock, South Bay punk rock.”

In addition to taking visual references from the street, such as graffiti and tattoo culture, Estrada said Teen Angels Magazine embodied an aesthetic of young Chicano culture that influenced his style. Estrada said reading the magazine and studying Mexican culture more broadly prompted his interest in artistic spaces that exist on their own terms, without reacting to conditions imposed by the dominant culture. Estrada made the drawings from “Purple Mexican” in the 1990s and early 2000s while teaching art in the adult division of the Los Angeles Unified School District, an experience which he said influenced his artistic practice.

“A lot of them (students) were women, and a lot of them were very material in their presence because their learning was from the street,” Estrada said. “It was about presenting yourself. … I was struck by the tremendous amount of positive energy coming out of that.”

[Related: Graduate student’s art exhibit speaks on diasporic communities through soil]

Estrada said the piece “Denim Raider Jacket,” a Raiders jersey hung on the gallery wall, was gifted to him by a former LAUSD student who joined a gang. The jersey acknowledges their friendship and mutual respect, Estrada said, and represents the conditions of gang activity in LA that obliquely influenced his work. Simmons said the works in “Purple Mexican” combine Estrada’s teaching, politics and attachment to his community. Estrada said he wants viewers to get a sense of the aesthetic, political and personal aspects of the show. In contrast to his earlier work, which could be more figurative, Simmons said Estrada’s series of yellow paintings from this year suggest a stylistic shift towards abstraction.

“In these works, there is this gestural quality,” Simmons said. “They evince this moment of not engaging figuration in favor of engaging with his love of pigment, paint, ink – his materials. I think that’s as important a part of the story.”

This interest in abstraction, Estrada said, comes from a desire to de-emphasize the representational aspects of his art. He said he wants a more open presentation of possibility for what the work could be about. Estrada said his early work in the “Helter Skelter” show imagined ways to move beyond the standard, mural-based Chicano artistic movement of the time. The result is on view in “Purple Mexican” – works such as “Honey Bunny” and “Pink Box” with emerging, protruding forms that extend out to viewers.

“I wanted things to have an agency of their own,” Estrada said. “It’s confronting you. It isn’t just sitting there for you to visually consume it. It’s a kind of confrontation.”

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David Egan
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