April 9, 1999

Barela: Remembering an Artist of the People

The Mexican Museum welcomes Barela: Remembering an Artist of the People, the critically-acclaimed traveling exhibition which originated at the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mexico and comes to the galleries of The Mexican Museum April 16 - June 27, 1999.

"Barela" 1998, 30 X 30", Oil on Canvas, by Ed Sandoval

Patrocinio Barela was the most important mid-20th century Mexican American artist from Northern New Mexico. In the course of his career, he redefined an artform and influenced a technique of wood carving that endures today. But, more importantly, Barela stripped away the formulaic accoutrements of Catholic imagery and reinterpreted the familiar in a way that brought much-needed relevance and revitalization to his community. Because he was not a practicing Catholic, the artist was able to make a true, meaningful distinction between religion and spirituality—a distinction many people had never entertained.

Born in 1900 in Bisbee, Arizona, and brought up in Taos, Barela left the southwest during the Great Depression to work as an itinerant laborer on farms throughout the forty states. In 1930, he returned to New Mexico and began his carving career, which is believed to have been inspired by a request that he repair the broken limbs of a santo (a saint-inspired sculpture) from a local Penitente Morada (a community's religious gathering place). Realizing that traditional construction methods would not stand the test of time, Barela conceived the notion of solid sculptures without the separately fabricated appendages common to the santo tradition, and, in doing so, single-handedly expanded the boundaries of the craft.

With the support of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Barela was able to advance his sculpting career while providing for his family. His earlier carvings were predominately religious and somewhat primitive in style, but his later works reflect genius, natural skill and refinement. During his lifetime, he participated in several group shows, including the National Museum of American Art in Washington D.C., New York's Museum of Modern Art, and the 1939 New York World's Fair Contemporary Art Exhibition. Ironically, it was not until after his tragic death in a 1964 fire that Barela was shown in solo exhibitions.

Barela remains a seminal figure in a lively artform that bridged the folk art of the santero tradition with the modernists art movement, and he has influenced several generations of wood carvers. Interestingly, althogh his work is community-based—and in many cases community-specific— it is known far more in mainstream circles than it is in the Latino world. The current exhibition demonstrates the power of his self-taught artistry and his influence on other sculptors within the santero community. On display are 40 religious, secular and abstract wood carvings by Barela, as well as a selection of works by artists he influenced, including Luis Tapia, José Benjamin Lopez, Max Garcia, José Alberto Baros, Luz Martinez, Leo Salazar, Ralph Sauzo, Don Rael and Barela's grandsons, Carlos E. Barela, Juan Pablo Rael and Luis Barela, Jr.

Enhancing the exhibition considerably is a website devoted entirely to the work on display, including a detailed, informative discourse on Barela's life and work, a thorough bibliography for further reference, and a generous selection of images. The website can be accessed at www.millicentrogers.com.

Also on display in the Museum's permanent gallery are photographic works by Miguel Gandert that The Mexican Museum commissioned from the artist in 1995. Gandert, who hails from the same region as Barela, uses his distinctive mode of social documentary and photojournalism as he focuses his lens on the Indian and Hispanic identities of rural mestizo communities. A catalogue including his work is on sale at the Museum's store throughout the run of the exhibition.

Barela: Remembering an Artist of the People premiered earlier this year at the Millicent Rogers Museum and, following its engament at The Mexican Museums, is scheduled for stays at the Museo de las Americas in Denver (July-September 1999) and the San Diego Museum of Man (February-May 2000), ending its run at the New Mexico Hispanic Cultural Center, which is currently under construction in Albuquerque.

This exhibition was organized by the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mex-ico, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, the M.A. Healy Family Foundation, The Dharma Foundation and New Mexico Arts.

The Mexican Museum is located at Ford Mason Center, Building D, between Laguna Street and Marina Boulevard, San Francisco, CA 94123.

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