Jacinto Guevara: He Ain’t No Nice Guy After All

When they set out, many a young artist is filled with naive optimism, and mistakenly believes they are the chosen one. Initially, they think they have it down for sure then they learn a thing or two. But in the lonely hours when truth begins to bite, an artist might turn their back and stall. If they spend enough years between birth and death, it comes as quite a shock when that trip leads to fall. The bitterness that comes when they read the writing on the wall might make them lash out and there are lots of times when they should have saved their breath lest they say things they might regret and discover that they ain’t no nice guy after all.

The irony of Lemmy’s lyrics lays in the fact that a genuinely bad guy doesn’t generally posses the self awareness to realize they might have been wrong. Motörhead’s Lemmy was a titan of Rock who looked like a demon that might eat his own young. Indeed, for many years he went out of his way to give people that impression. Despite his terrifyingly aggressive image, those intimates who knew Lemmy well will tell you that he was a sensitive soul and one of the most generous people to ever grace a stage. Lemmy was no demon but he was tormented by them and his music reflected this throughout his career. That music was born of pain and the artist’s empathy for the suffering of others. If he came off as an angry tyrant this is because he was incensed by the injustice he perceived around him. Yet countless souls felt as he did and were grateful to the artist for giving voice to their frustrations and painting their world so clearly and intuitively. They recognized themselves in him and knew that he came from the place where they live.

Jacinto Guevara was born around the same time as Lemmy. He plays accordion rather than guitar, never achieved the fame of a Rock star and doesn’t stand six foot four, but in many ways he bears a striking resemblance in character to Motörhead’s imposing iconoclast. Jacinto’s motormouth can strike terror into the hearts of pretentious artists with delusions of grandeur and he unleashes on the art establishment like a Heavy Metal anarchist more concerned with causing mayhem than creating Utopia. Nobody knows where he will strike next and who might be the target of his latest verbal assault. Guevara is no sniper and his preferred instruments of destruction tend to be the rhetorical shotgun and the lobbed grenade. Consequently, he can on occasion create unintended collateral damage. But like Lemmy, his aggression isn’t born of malice but of his sincere indignation at the self evident injustice he observes around him. He is genuinely appalled by pretense and corruption, and Jacinto feels no obligation to give those he perceives as charlatans a pass. He is incensed that evidently none dare call these local posers’ aesthetic apostasies artistic treason and that talentless hacks manage to garner unwarranted attention and accolades year after infuriating year. People tend to dismiss him as egocentric and jealous, as an artist with an overinflated sense of his own importance who simply resents those whose work he lacks the sophistication to comprehend. People are wrong about this. Jacinto doesn’t actually believe that he is the local Leonardo, rather he simply believes that the vast majority of those who are unjustly lauded make artwork that sucks. Jacinto is indeed right about that.

Like Lemmy, Jacinto is largely self taught and makes art that reflects the cultural priorities of the downtrodden and dispossessed. He isn’t concerned with high brow aesthetics and the tastes of aristocrats or pretentious academics. His paintings depict his lived experience, the values of his community and the tastes of people who don’t let pompous arts writers tell them what to like. Like his Facebook lambasts, Jacinto’s artworks are undeniably sincere. But unlike his rhetorical assaults, Guevara’s paintings reflect subtlety, nuance and compassion. Beneath all that theatrical aggression lays a sensitive tormented soul full of love for his home and for the humble people who inhabit it.

I have been observing Jacinto’s art practice at close range for many years. Not everything he has made has been a work of technical genius. But if there is one virtue that Jacinto respects, perhaps above all others, that virtue is authenticity. Jacinto’s artwork is unquestionably culturally authentic. His paintings reflect the sensibilities of arte popular and his mode of figurative depiction is informed by the devotional retablitos one might find at a Mexican shrine to a local patron saint. He has often painted scenes from daily life, of Tejano musicians playing in a local club, of families celebrating their time together or of the stoic personalities of his gente.

For more years than I can count, when he gets strapped for cash to the point of impending calamity, Jacinto has put out the call that he is available for cheap portraits. It has become a right of passage among many San Antonians to stop by his quaint house on Olive street and sit on his porch overlooking the blue agaves as Jacinto dashes off a quick likeliness in acrylic on a five by eight inch panel. He’s not proud and will happily paint your beloved pet with as much enthusiasm and affection as portraits of his human subjects. The cats that saunter around his casita suspect that he likes animals better than most people and they aren’t the least bit intimidated by his feigned gruffness. These quickly rendered small portraits may not be artistic masterpieces but they have given many a local the opportunity to sit around on a laconic afternoon and spend some quality time getting to know the real Jacinto, a person who is curious about everything, interested in people’s stories and who celebrates life in its simplicity. For those who may have only known him by reputation, this portrait sitting experience can be illuminating as they discover a genuine soul, tender and humble who, despite all appearances, genuinely loves his fellow man even if he doesn’t always respect him. At $75 a piece, these modest portraits may not be an art flipper’s speculative bonanza, but in combination they constitute an important document of those with the courage and curiosity to have made their pilgrimage to San Antonio’s near East Side to get to know the legendary curmudgeon of Olive Street. None who have done so regret it and despite their lack of grandeur, these humble retratos pequeños invariably become amongst their owners’ most cherished possessions.

But it would be a mistake to simply write off Guevara as a folk artist slinging barbs at a sophisticated art establishment from which he has been largely excluded. He is not alone in that exclusion and has been painting since 1960. In that time he has witnessed the rise of the Chicano art movement and seen its artists marginalized by an art establishment that could not relate to aesthetic and cultural priorities which differed from those of the Anglo elite. Jacinto has lived in both LA and San Antonio and been personally acquainted with many of the most significant figures in the Chicano art world. He has watched as his fellow artists negotiated identity and aesthetics to create a hybrid set of Mestizaje priorities that are neither exclusively Hispanic nor Anglo. Like the work of his compadres, Guevara’s paintings are part of the dialogue of American contemporary art and reflect the priorities of Latinos living in the United States where the promise of ascendency seems almost attainable but somehow forever just out of reach.

While it might not always be evident from his social media tirades, Jacinto is actually a quite literate person and is indeed a man of ideas. But unlike the pretentious pseudo intellectuals whom he often eviscerates, he is plain spoken and sees no need for social affectation. For Guevara, poverty and intellect are not mutually exclusive and privilege doesn’t automatically afford one profundity. He is an equal opportunity ass hole and will not hesitate to excoriate his own gente when he feels they lack integrity, when he suspects they are pandering or cynically resorting to cultural cliché in lieu of either talent or sincerity. He cannot always be counted on to be a reliable team player and this has on occasion cost him politically even within his own cohort. While he is concerned with justice, at the end of the day, Jacinto is not a politician and is loyal to his own principles more than to the agendas of any group.

Now in his early sixties, Jacinto has spent a lot of years between birth and death and in those decades he has learned a great deal about what is truly important in life. He has also learned how to paint. As importantly, Guevara has learned why to paint and both his skill and insight are unmistakably evident in the body of work he has created over the last several years. While his significance may not be obvious to a jaded art establishment more concerned with pretense and social ambition than genuine artistic integrity or bonafide cultural relevance, this does not mean that Jacinto’s artistic efforts have gone entirely unnoticed. Astute collectors, serious connoisseurs and even the occasional rogue scholar, especially those attuned to Chicano art history, have indeed taken note of Guevara’s important artistic achievements. Sophisticated Chicano art aficionados like Joe Díaz, Raphael Guerra, Ricardo Romo, Banks Smith, Eric Clapton and Cheech Marin have all included Jacinto’s artworks in their collections. Even the legendary comedian and heroic art collector Steve Martin has taken notice of Guevara’s unique artistic vision.

A recent pop up art exhibit at The Brick Gallery in San Antonio’s Blue Star Arts Complex afforded a perhaps understandably rare opportunity to see Jacinto Guevara’s talents on display. The Brick and Nina Hassele are to be commended for having the courage to go where few local gallerists would dare and provide audiences with a chance to see some of the best work made by an artist others wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. There were more than a dozen large scale works on exhibit painted in acrylic on gessoed wood panel.

Most of these paintings depicted local structures from around San Antonio and the surrounding area. While Jacinto is quite capable of depicting people, perhaps his greatest gift lays in his ability to capture an ineffable sense of place. In the hands of this incredible artist, a depiction of a house exceeds the banal genre of a simple architectural rendering. Guevara paints portraits of places and, like all good portraiture, the artwork captures a good deal more than a superficial likeness but manages to convey character and identity, history and personality, virtue and vice, tragedy and comedy as well as a sense of loss and sublime beauty. Jacinto’s architectural portraiture portrays narrative in a manner that goes beyond formal observations.

His paintings are strait forward depictions yet contain colloquially esoteric implications. What is not in the painting is as important as what is evidently there. Often, the painting is devoid of figures yet the life of the people affiliated with this place is palpably present. One senses the lives lived in these neighborhoods and the houses are long standing witnesses that testify to the cultural richness of the people who inhabit them, who walk past them, whose lives are contextualized both culturally and emotionally by these built environments.

When standing in front of a Jacinto painting of a house, an old theater or a bridge, one of the things that is most striking is how someone who recognizes the structure will immediately begin to tell you a story born of their own experiences. They will remark on how they once lived in that house when as a young college student they were courting the person who became their spouse or that they used to walk by it on their way to elementary school. They will tell you how their grandfather used to own that old small town theater and built it during the Great Depression when cinema was not only an essential means of escape but also a unifying force that brought communities together in shared fantasies and experiences. They will point to a downtown bridge and share their memories of the local legend Bongo Joe playing his drums for the tourists who passed over that bridge on their way to buy chachkas at El Mercado. These places are entities that are part of the living breathing fabric of the region. They are the repositories of both tragic and comic memories. They are not just the context for the society but are beloved and cherished members of the community. Jacinto’s paintings are not simply renderings but are intuitive personifications and those who recognize this fact love these artworks as much as they love the places they represent.

These images celebrate historicity and the tenacity of the structures that are reborn to live new lives generation after generation. There is often a melancholy nostalgia conveyed by the mood of an artwork, but there is also optimism and a sense that what is substantial about these structures is intrinsic to the integrity of their original designs. This aesthetic care grants them a longevity as well as provides them an enduring relevance and charm that both accommodates and resists change. Like the people to whom these structures are relevant, the buildings themselves prevail against all odds.

But there is more than exquisite sentiment available to initiates of Jacinto’s artwork. There are also impressive technical surprises. While he shares the legacy of the naïf itinerate painters of a Pre-Modernist era, one cannot help but notice a compositional sophistication. It’s not flashy or ostentatious, nor does it simply consist of glib inside jokes for art historians, but Jacinto is clearly aware of early 20th century and mid century Modernist canons. His use of geometry recalls the works of PreWar painters informed by Art Deco and Bauhaus sensibilities but who refused to abandon figuration or representation entirely. His use of light to both define space as well as convey mood, to harshly reveal or alternately impart opacity, also reflects this Modernist sensibility. His occasional overt irreverent humor recalls Surrealist tendencies as does the psychological quality of his work. His unavoidable sensitivity and concern for how place creates the culture that creates the people conveys a genuine Postmodern sensibility that extends beyond trite political correctness, sanctimony or mere self advocacy. For Jacinto, Postmodern cultural relativism doesn’t constitute a subjective license to steal or an entitlement to preach but rather enables one to honestly testify to the truth as one sincerely encounters it. Far from being a naïf, Guevara’s work conveys his genuine sophistication devoid of pretense, cliché or cynical exploitation.

Of the legions of local Latino artists who have over the last few decades picked up a brush, there are a handful who have created masterworks of truly canonical importance that will eventually be more widely recognized for their impressive skills, their thoughtful insights and their authentic vision. There is substantial critical consensus that this shortlist includes Jesse Treviño, Mel Casas, Adán Hernández, César Martínez, Ángel Rodríguez-Diaz, Vincent Valdez, Roberto González and John Hernández. When this list is being rattled off by the local art cognoscenti, they often neglect to include Jacinto Guevara. This glaring omission indicates their prejudice against a sometimes difficult personality more than it proves their bonafides as objective fine art connoisseurs. When it comes to his oeuvre of portraits of place, Jacinto is without equal and he owns this territory like no other artist who has ever tried to depict the corazón of puro San Antonio.

Perhaps, like Lemmy, Jacinto Guevara is no nice guy after all, but he is without a doubt one of the most talented and honest among us.