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'Two Brothers Fighting,' 1986, Oil on canvas
Blood Feud: 'Two Brothers Fighting' is one of the works on exhibit at the Museum of Art & History as part of the Eduardo Carrillo show.

In Living Color

A retrospective of Eduardo Carrillo reveals an artist who wouldn't be pigeonholed

By Maureen Davidson

EDUARDO Carrillo: Within a Cultural Context opened this week at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. A pilgrimage is likely. Not so much to visit such devotional works as The Last Supper or The Flight of Sor Juana, or even to enjoy a contact high in front of Los Tropicanos, but rather, for those who have been deprived, to bask in the magnetic aura of a man who exerted a profound influence on those who knew him, and who left an indelible mark on his community.

Eduardo Carrillo was an artist who lived in full color, ate and drank with gusto, played guitar and sang full-throttle as if he really could, made art like it was breathing, saw life for what's good in it, irrepressibly loved women, was devoted to two wives and became dependent on drugs but spent his last eight years in transcendent recovery. A scholarship in his name now aids art students in need at UCSC; an annual Eduardo Carrillo Prize in Painting awards $10,000 to under-recognized artists; a virtual Museo Eduardo Carrillo resides impressively online and the Crocker Museum in Sacramento will soon have a gallery permanently devoted to his work. His massive tile mural El Grito in the Plazita de Dolores in Los Angeles commemorates the Mexican peasant revolt. Locally, his Birth, Death and Regeneration mural in the Palomar passageway in Santa Cruz is now painted over, but murals by his students can be seen throughout the Central Coast.

A professor at UCSC from 1972 until his death in 1997, he was a founding fellow of Oakes and Porter Colleges. More enchanter than teacher, he created a safe but thrilling environment that evoked astonishing work even from beginners. His painting class that morphed into a mural class was a surprise then a prize asset to the university. For his ceramics classes he marched his students to dig up clay from campus fields, then fired the work in the holes they dug. He actually did teach underwater basket weaving and shadow puppetry as well as pre-Columbian art history. No matter how radical his teaching ideas, his base was the love of oil and watercolor painting.

Born in Santa Monica to parents from Baja, Mexico, young Carrillo attended UCLA and was headed toward chemistry as a career until a post-baccalaureate 14 months in Spain focused his ambitions: He visited the Prado daily, copying the paintings of Velasquez, El Greco and, religiously, the Meditation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch. He mixed his own pigments in their colors and learned glazing techniques of the masters. When he returned to UCLA it was for an MFA under the mentorship of Stanton MacDonald Wright, who had been the head of the WPA in California.

During this era of the mid-1960s, the Chicano movement was gaining momentum, having sprouted in the fields of the United Farm Workers, matured in the political theater of El Teatro Campesino and then entered international awareness under the flag of Chicanismo/Chicano Art.

But Eduardo Carrillo was not a man of rage. "You couldn't drag him into a bad mood," said his wife, Alison. He expressed his culture through its history; he painted allegories, he painted grace and greatness in the people of his race and ultimately the human race. In 1966 he founded El Centro de Arte Regional in his father's birthplace in La Paz, Baja, teaching and exhibiting regional crafts and acting as the center's first director. When he joined the faculty at UCSC he was at first controversial, according to fellow professor Douglas McClelland, because he was considered not political enough. According to another contemporary, professor Kathryn Metz, "He just didn't want to be the university's Chicano."

He was his own man, as the paintings in MAH's Solari Gallery demonstrate. His distinctive palette at first seems muted, dominated by an earthy red and ochre and a warm cerulean blue all close in value, all overglazed in that Renaissance technique that draws the colors together. After only a few moments, the outrageous boldness of his highlights, outlines, shadows become apparent and what had seemed almost somber is revealed to be filled with light.

The exhibit includes works ranging from a fond portrait of his uncle building a wall to The Last Supper, which contrasts with thousands of insipid versions by depicting a powerful, earthy Christ in a passionate dinner discussion: each apostle a portrait of a real character in Eduardo's San Ignacio family home (a visitor was the only one who would agree to be painted as Judas.) In Down the Lane, Carrillo puts a Santa Cruz stamp on a "boulevard scene" referring to Steamer Lane. Alison Carrillo is dramatically lit in a ritualized dance in Woman With Snake. The giant psychedelic Los Tropicanos was called "the most important painting of the 1970s" by critic Kenneth Baker after it appeared in the seminal "The Bad Painting" show in New York. As his wife, Alison, said, "Ed saw life in layers of reality." The layers were not always revealed through psychedelics. The artist wrote of his beloved Baja: "Here the light is so intense that colors get distilled twice, like good tequila, into something potent enough to rediscover what you take for reality."

Two self-portraits painted some four decades apart greet visitors, as if to say, "Here this is, this is all of me, from start to finish." Not all, of course, not nearly all.

continues through Nov. 22 at the Museum of Art & History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. 831.429.1954 or

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