The Evergreen State College Library | Chicano/Latino Archive

Alfredo M. Arreguín: Reviews

The Seattle Times Ticket | Friday, April 5, 2002 | Page 40 H

Arreguín throws open windows to sumptuous words of imagination
By Matthew Kangas / Special to The Seattle Times

The publication of a big beautiful art book on Northwest painter, Alfredo Arreguín is the occasion for a retrospective survey of his work at Bellevue Art Museum through June 16.

Easily the most serious and well-written monograph on a local artist in years, its author; Lauro Flores, a UW professor of Spanish and Portuguese, makes a convincing case for Arreguín’s significance as a truly American—as in hemispheric—and Chicano artist. Having lived here since 1956, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1984, Arreguín has long taken Mexican folk culture, history, nature and ecology as the subjects of his intricately painted, and often spatially dazzling, oils on canvas.

Such substantial recognition on an art-historical and literary scale is long overdue for the Wedgwood resident, now 67. Not that he has been overlooked. The book, "Alfredo Arreguín: Patterns of Dreams and Nature" (bilingual Spanish-English edition, University of Washington Press, $40), and the current Bellevue Art Museum show are merely the culmination of a string of honors and grants locally and statewide, as well as nationally and internationally. Notably, he won the Palm of the People award at the 1979 Cagnes-sur-mer International Festival of Painting in France.

See the art before reading the fascinating book, however. Despite its being seriously underlighted (perhaps a flaw in architect Steven Holt's daring plan), "Alfredo Arreguín: Patterns of Dreams and Nature" is a ravishing experience, one requiring intense concentration in order for its pleasures to be released. No wonder so many poets and short-story writers, such as Tess Gallagher and her late husband, Raymond Carver, love Arreguín's art. Beginning in the 1970s, his best work has been much like a good poem or novel: highly imagistic, descriptive and open to a variety of interpretations. Gallagher wrote a forward to the book that is shrewd and deeply flattering; Carver's short story "Menudo" chronicles his friend the painter as a warm and wise character.

Like Northwest poets and Olympic Peninsula bards, Arreguín also lovingly captures landscape. Magisterial revelations of mountaintops, streams, salmon runs, birds and rain forests appear frequently. They are joined by pattern-veiled visions of indigenous peoples, plants and the occasional streak of (Mexican) national mythmaking, along with allusions to popular Mexican culture, art forms, and historical figures from Hidalgo to painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, (The paintings are all so detailed, it would have been nice to have more room between them; fewer might have been better still, especially since Arreguín so often works in series.) 

Time stands still in an Arreguín landscape because the multiple overlays of painted white fretwork and patterning the viewer in an optical vise grip, forcing us into the pictorial space. This can be wearying –– or even tedious at times—but it is definitely worth the effort. Art at its best forces us to slow down and immerse ourselves in the artist's rich and complex imagination. Among Northwest masters, only Kenneth Callahan and Michael Spafford come close to equaling Arreguín's varied mythic universe.

Madonnas with elaborately embroidered peasant skirts are protected by cheetahs and lizards. Jungles, mountain ranges and seascapes are seen through portals that promise imaginary places to go, instantly accessible to the willing viewer. Lose yourself in "Black River" (1978) or time-travel to Venezuela in "Orinoco 11" (1977) for a taste ofArreguín's mysterious and sumptuous forests. Whatever the geographical locale, the artist transforms it into his own meditation ground. His "La Push" (1981) is brown and golden, an inviting sunset with a floating island at its center.

You will find your own private Michoacan—a paradise of escape and beauty—while at the Arreguín exhibition. Each visitor will unravel the layers of linear networking that bind each painting and expose the artist's deepest gifts—for color, space and image. All are revealed and more through an emotional and optical experience that operates on many different but equally satisfying levels. Begin the journey now.




Viva la Vida
©1992 Tess Gallagher

A bridge of forest and jungle connects my thirty-year friendship with Alfredo Arreguín, and it is visible in Arreguín's painting and in the spiritual climate of my poems.

Rain, vegetation, abundant wildlife, the unseen and the unseeable, the great, tall darkness with its chinks of light—that sense of mystery and beauty was an early gift to our psyches—a poet and a painter linked by rain forests thousands of miles apart. Alfredo, as a youth, had come to respect and love the rain forests of the state of Guerrero, Mexico, while working on a dam there, and I had been raised in logging camps near the Olympic Peninsula rain forest.

At the beginning of our friendship in the early 1960s in Seattle, Arreguín was rather the enfant terrible and I was simply the enfant, a kid literally from the sticks. It was a ragged, Bohemian group with Alfredo at the center—gigantically unpredictable, maniacally jovial, or swirling like liquid fire around us, scorching us with insights and insults by turn. We welcomed each other's stories, inspired, tested, and argued with each other, lived our art as much as we made it in those days one biographer has called "The Blue Moon Period," after the bar we frequented near the University of Washington.

All this allows me now to turn my art of words toward Arreguín's rare gift in these wild, sacred grottoes—to say things perhaps no one else can. Like Federico Garcia Lorca, the great Spanish poet, Arreguín too is a lyric-narrative poet, yet one whose Miltonic range hints its hell only by implication because it so gloriously gives its vision of paradise onearth. Lorca says it best:

I came into this world with eyes
and I'll leave without them.

For it is the capacity of our eyes to feast that Arreguín celebrates most. His palpitations of color and lightand arrested movement awaken our subliminal vision,which belongs to metaphor. His paintings seem toforce our entire being to experience its livingness as an insatiable yearning and questing of the eyes. Before one of his jungles, we become freshly aware ofthe tactile sensuality of our reaching, its sighted caressing, our pleasure in color, pattern, and discernableanimal and human shapes emerging from the density. Density itself insures a nonlinear reading of these paintings, for the eye must leap, must search, even lose itself, because the narrative is airborne and lyrical.

If Lorca developed the notion of "Deep Song,"with its impassioned cries taken from the ballads ofthe Andalusian Gypsies, Arreguín has invented a form of "deep painting"—emotional and sensual, splashed with the sapphire water of his dreams of aworld in harmony. We are mightily instructed anddelighted by the way everything in his paintings holds and supports everything else, by the interdependence and dynamic implosion of life at every comer of his canvases.

I've been visiting Arreguín’s studios over many years and have seen paintings metamorphose into the encyclopedic catalogue of impulse and intent so richin their final result. For every finished painting, literally dozens have dissolved under Arreguín’s brush, as he embellished and explored his canvas withthe meticulous care of a cell biologist. Even the intricacies of his ornamentations are like waves washing the shore of sight clean.

Much has been said to place Arreguín historically at the head of a movement in the early 1970s called "Pattern and Decoration" and more recently "Pattern Painting." I admit to feeling these categories are superficial—a kind of robbery of genius, reductive for their attempt to roll the artist onto the skein of lazy attentions. To me, at least, they do not begin to account for the focused complexities of his vision.

I recall having introduced Raymond Carver to Alfredo and his wife, the painter Susan Lytle, in 1980 while they were still living in their humble but glad cottage on N.E. 15th St., where I'd known them through the 1970s. Ray ultimately wrote a portrait inhis story "Menudo" of Alfredo in this house as he fictionally prepared this traditional Mexican New Year's dish. Ray delighted in Alfredo's own storytelling and shared his ability to laugh hardest at himself.

One of the personal metaphors behind Arreguín’s Kahlo series may be Susan's many unspoken gifts to his work. It seemed an act of recognition when she began (in the early 1970s) to read biographies of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, as ballast to her own life. She shared her enthusiasm with me and with Alfredo.

Arreguín had his own early connections to Kahlo.He attended the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, where Kahlo first met Diego Rivera, whom she later married. Alfredo and his playmates bounced balls against the mural Rivera had painted there years earlier. Add to this a shared fidelity to Mexican Indian life and folk art, and his attraction to Kahlo takes on even more dimension. He reinvests her image with an essential solitude in Cuatro Ventanas. To search for the fourth Kahlo (who is stitched upside down in the tapestry of water), we must add ourselves to an elusive jungle embrace that all but reabsorbs her.

Arreguín’s patterns are taken from Colonial Mexican art, Baroque church facades, decorative Pre-Columbian art, animal and floral motifs of ceramic work from Tlaquepaque as well as Islamic architecture, Indian Tantric painting, and Eastern and Near Eastern sources as diverse as the stenciled kimono or the intricately chased sword hilt. I used to collect pattern books with wallpaper and designs for him on my travels. The dialogues of these patterns as Arreguín uses them in concert causes all history to become an instantaneous present, what the Mexican poet Octavio Paz has called an "eternal now."

This "eternal now" seems to be the time of Arreguín's paintings. Nonetheless, we know his madonnas—Madonna Afro-Latina with her upturned palms, and the sad expression of Nuestra Señora dela Selva—communicate a timely plea for the threatened jungle behind them. Arreguín’s fierce Nuestra Señora de Cuzco intensifies the guardianship role ofthe madonnas. She seems primordial, full of warnings and omens despite the floral design of her mantle and the medicinal lily in her left hand, her face painted for battle and camouflage at once.

In Sacrificio na Amazonia, Arreguín pays direct homage to Chico Mendes, the Brazilian rubber harvester martyred on December 22, 1988, for his defense of the Amazon jungle. Mendes looms impervious to death, released to his spiritual potential as conscience and guardian.

Although the immediate imperative of protecting these rare plant and animal preserves does accentuate the present impact of these paintings, something beyond environmental mandates will cause them to endure as works of art. As in the poetry I most admire, a productive reticence keeps Arreguín’s work from entirely yielding to usefulness. In his paintings we experience the undeniable unity of living organisms. We even seem to sense the invisible templates behind growth itself.

Arreguín’s hypnotic meditations assume their most sustained vision in the triptych Sueño (Dream: Eve Before Adam)—lush panels painted over a period of seven months (most of his larger paintings take four to eight weeks). One doesn't look at these paintings, one gazes—is made to fix the eyes in a steady, prolonged attention, as if to enter what Neruda describes as "the great silence when grass was born."

Especially in this triptych I am aware of how pattern induces a certain state of tranquility, a spiritual balance, in which it is possible again to believe in what is before us. Arreguín has made the jungle paradise more real than life, so that it has enough excess to be true—this sinless effulgence of breasts and butterflies, parrots and red berries, baboons and iguana, tendrils and primordial eyes emerging from indigo leaves.

The ambition of a painting to defy its very stillness is present in Siete Leguas, the magical horse named for Emiliano Zapata's horse. After Zapata was ambushed and killed in the Mexican Revolution of1910, his horse made its escape into the mountains and became a metaphor for Zapata's indomitable spirit. What appear to be variations on American Indian designs at the legs give velocity and power to the mosaic horse—it speeds away from us even as it plunges steadily in place. Susan told me she read my story "The Lover of Horses" aloud to Alfredo while he painted, which perhaps accounts for the Gypsy flavor he captured so well.

I know no better way to free my painter friend from these attempts to describe what he does than to quote again from Lorca in the conversation of the lieutenant colonel of the Civil Guard with the Gypsy:

Lt. Colonel: Where were you?
Gypsy: On the bridge over the rivers.
Lt. Colonel: Over what rivers?
Gypsy: Over all the rivers.
Lt. Colonel: What were you doing there?
Gypsy: Building a tower of cinnamon.

Perhaps this, then, is the ultimate gift of the poet to the painter: to restore the painter's freedom to build the tower of cinnamon, to paint those images that compel his art beyond reason and reality.

As someone once said about the best marriages: they take place for impractical reasons. So Arreguín’s paintings join me to a world I couldn't have known I needed until he gave it.

Tess Gallagher
July 28, 1992

Tess Galllagher is a poet, short story writer, and essayist who writes and lives in Port Angeles, Washington. Her most recent books of poetry are Moon Crossing Bridge and Portable Kisses, both published in 1992. Also in 1992 her book of short stories, The Lover of Horses, was reissued. Alfredo Arreguín painted Siete Leguas for the cover of this book. Currently she is an advisor to a Robert Altman film production of stories by her late husband, Raymond Carver.
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