Artist Eduardo Sarabia talks treasure hunting, painting, and “Moctezuma’s Revenge”

February 19, 2014 at 7:02 pm 1 comment

Eduardo Sarabia is no stranger to the art world—his latest exhibition, “Moctezuma’s  Revenge,” which opened this season at the ASU Art Museum, is just one in a long list of successes for this emerging Mexican-American artist. Sarabia’s work has been shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Whitney Museum of American Art, L.A. Louver and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as at the 51st Venice Biennale, the 2nd Moscow Biennale and the Istanbul Biennial, among others.

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Sarabia, who grew up in Los Angeles and presently lives and works in Guadalajara, Mexico, uses his artwork to make reference not just to a physical border, but to a dividing line in the identity of one who feels at once familiar with and distant from his or her cultural heritage.

“Moctezuma’s Revenge,” the first comprehensive solo exhibition of works by Sarabia, features more than 40 works of art from both previous and new bodies of his work in a variety of media, including sculpture, painting, video, fiber and works on paper. It is on view at the ASU Art Museum’s 10th Street and Mill Avenue location on ASU’s Tempe campus through April 26, 2014.

Before the exhibition opened, Sarabia sat down with the curator of the exhibition, Julio César Morales, and Brittany Corrales, Windgate curatorial intern and master’s candidate in art history, to talk about his influences, dreams and new work.

JCM: One of your earliest works dealt with the investigation of your grandfather’s treasure map of the mythical hidden treasure of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Can you talk about the research and events that led to your search for the hidden treasure?

ES: I started researching companies and people who do treasure hunts. There are a lot in the United States, and I was interested in having this set up as a business. I talked to a lawyer friend of mine, who helped me write up a joint-venture agreement for potential investors. I met with them and talked about the project, the evidence and everything that my grandfather left me. They bought shares in my company, which was called Pacific Discovery Group of the Americas. I made stock certificate venture drawings that they purchased. It was an edition of 10 — I figured it was a rough number of what I needed to start the search. I did a round of fund-raising and bought some equipment and just went down to Mexico and started. I was a little bit naïve about going down there and what I was going to find. I met up with a friend of my grandfather who had gone with him on one of his searches, so he pointed me to where we thought the treasure would be, and that’s where we started looking.

BC: You often infuse elements of humor into your work to deal with darker issues. The exhibition title, Moctezuma’s Revenge, is a phrase often used to describe a traveler’s digestive complications upon entering a new country, thought to be a lingering curse from the conquered ruler of the Aztec empire.  What were your reasons for choosing this title?

ES: I think it is a funny phrase, but it is a very strong phrase. For the exhibition, I wanted to make a connection between what has been happening in Mexico in the present, to what happened in the past, using these traditional languages to bring meaning to contemporary culture. I use an anthropological approach to the work that gives it a connection with Moctezuma and the Aztecs — what we know about them and how we are living now. There are beautiful parts of the culture and violent aspects to the culture, as well. So, at one point the title just made sense to me. It was something that I had thought about years ago and was waiting for the right moment to use, and it made sense to do it at an exhibition in Arizona. There is so much friction with the politics with Mexico here in this state. The title will hopefully trigger some kind of emotion. Once you come see the exhibition, you will notice that it has nothing to do with what you thought it would be about.

JCM: In the last year, you have been in residence at the ASU Art Museum’s artist residency program and have traveled several times to Phoenix, developing a new body of work that is influenced by Arizona. Can you describe your findings and how you worked these experiences into your new body of work and artist practice?

ES: One of the first trips I took was during the Turn off the Sun (2013) exhibition [at the ASU Art Museum]. Our friend took us to a ceremonial Yaqui dance in Guadalupe nearby, and it was amazing. It seemed like a mix of various cultures put into these elaborate ceremonies. It gave me a starting point for me to investigate. It had a lot to do with subcultures — the Catholic Church, Yaqui indigenous beliefs, border culture, American popular culture and a mix of things that blew me away. I convinced our friend to do a scouting trip to come back and visit sacred spaces here in Arizona, to look at cave drawings and to explore a little bit within the reservations. We visited a place called Painted Rock. This all inspired my ideas for this show, mixing and matching these traditions with pop and contemporary beliefs that maybe date back a long time ago, maybe not. I was also impressed with the Arizona landscape and its colors. It was a good starting point for some of the drawings in the exhibition.

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JCM: In 2007 you participated in the now-seminal exhibition Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement at LACMA, the first post-Chicano contemporary group show that defined the production of Mexican-American art in the United States. Do you feel the exhibition’s impact changed the perception of your work and if so, how?

ES: I liked the exhibition because I got to meet other artists working in different mediums that I am somehow connected to. Although they are not all defined by their identities, they were doing interesting work that I could relate to, by having a connection within our backgrounds. That was important for me to see — how other artists were dealing with their identities and identity issues.

I was recently asked how my work relates in a Mexican contemporary landscape. I feel that I have a unique point of view because I am very close to both cultures, having grown up in Los Angeles and moved to Mexico. In the United States, I am constantly defending the things happening in Mexico and vice versa. I have to be honest with myself and what is happening. It’s a very particular situation, to be able to defend both sides.

BC: The basis of the paintings in this exhibition are painstakingly detailed photorealist images, which you then drown with daubs of paint, in what some might perceive as a violent defacing of the original images. Can you talk about what inspired this technique? 

ES: My projects are really elaborate. They usually start with a small, simple idea that leads to a trip or adventure — trying to find a treasure, or a feather or a shaman. I document these trips for personal reasons, to remember, and I take a lot of photographs. I have so many photographs in my studio — some are bad photographs that I can’t use for anything else. I started using them as palettes, accumulating these painted images in my studio.

For the Phantom Sightings show, I wanted to create a secret tomb in the museum space. I wanted typical oil paintings hung outside. Oil paintings made sense, because it is what people think of as low art and high art. A giant photorealist painting made sense as a prop, and to have the door to this tomb hiding behind one. I was trying to get the museum to hang a Picasso or something, but they wouldn’t let me, so I made my own paintings. They took on a life of their own. They are completely personal: a representation of my trips, people I met and talked to. They speak to the themes of illusion and reality that I play with in my work. It made perfect sense to make them part of a larger body of work.

BC: Your work often comments on the romanticizing of drug culture to young people. Growing up in LA, did you ever feel a desire to belong to this culture yourself? 

ES: I grew up in Boyle Heights in the projects, so being part of a gang — a romanticized street family — was a big part of growing up. It starts with the simple idea of your friends being protective of their neighborhood. This escalates until you get to larger things. I understand this idea. Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, rap music was a big part of our lives. Surviving, making money [and] having nice things was what all our friends wanted in this neighborhood. It made sense to me.

When I was young, I was a bit of a nerd. I was always the first one to finish my work in class. My teachers gave me a pen and pencil to distract me and they realized I had some kind of drawing gift. They convinced my parents to take me to an arts conservatory on Saturdays. I didn’t have time to hang out with my friends on the street. I was either going to art classes or playing on the chess team. Some of our close friends growing up have passed away from being in gangs and getting into the drug culture. When both of your parents are working and you grow up in a bad neighborhood, it is easy to get caught up in these things. Art saves lives.

What was surprising when I went to Mexico was that in the narco culture, it wasn’t just little kids growing up listening to the music. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t listen to rap music or grunge. But in Mexico, everyone, young and old, listens to the folk songs. It’s a big part of the broader culture. I’ve never tried to glorify it, but it was a part of a very specific time when I grew up.

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BC: If you were not working professionally as an artist, what would your career be?

ES: With my personality, I am very open to doing and trying new things, and having fun doing it. When I first graduated from school, I was producing a TV show. I directed a few commercials. But I always went back to working on my personal work. There is a lot that I like to produce and share. I opened a restaurant in Guadalajara and a restaurant in Berlin. I have a tequila company, and I am a partner in a Mexican craft beer company. I like to play with a lot of things — it keeps me busy. I have an entrepreneurial sensibility that translates to my work. When I started looking for treasure, it was important that it be a business, a joint venture. The tequila bar in Berlin was modeled after a business. That’s the way I work — my interests move me forward.

All images courtesy of the artist.

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Entry filed under: Artists at the Museum, ASU Art Museum, ASU Art Museum: Behind-the-scenes.

‘MUCK’ showcases new trends in ceramic art, opens Feb. 15 at the ASU Art Museum What’s happening at the ASU Art Museum this week: March 31 – April 6, 2014

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