I both love and hate this question. I love it because it's fair and things do influence us. Also, I think that artists of all kinds along with all the other people who influence us give us permission to try new things and be who we are, so I do truly value the importance of influences. I hate the question because sometimes it gets narrowed down into an art historical discussion that really misses the point of influences in my view. Right off the bat: Ché Guevara, Noam Chomsky, Rebecca Solnit, and so many others have and do influence me and for so many different reasons. There are countless authors, activists, artists who have affected me in positive and contributive ways, so the list is just so long that it's a bit infuriating to try and narrow it. So, what I'll do is focus on some epiphanic moments that shook me up, woke me up and helped me see better, think better and hopefully be better. There are six.
One, I watched this short video interview with Kerry James Marshall about mastery. I have been a long time follower and admirer of Kerry James Marshall's work and this video helped me understand the importance of participating in the art "pantheon" from a minority and outsider perspective. I began to see my art practice less as a participation in a failed system but as an opportunity to insert a new voice, perhaps even an important voice into the discussion and to, at the highest levels, perhaps deliver that conversation to future generations for them to do whatever they choose with it: reject it, build off of it, learn from it, as the case may be. Kerry James Marshall's short discussion on mastery gave me responsibility. It said: "No, you can't simply cop-out."
Two, I watched an Instagram video post by the Reverend Al Sharpton at the height of Donald Trump's most racist episodes in his presidency. Reverend Sharpton said simply, paraphrasing: "It's not about you. It's not about your ego. You don't have to be the hero of everything. You just have to run your lap. So, run your lap. Run your lap." That was incredibly loud and powerful to me: "Run your lap". I have an image of Jimmy Carter after he fell and bruised his eye at 95, the next day, back at Habitat for Humanity hammering nails, taped to my wall with the words "Run your lap" on it. I realized, I too needed to run my lap - as an artist.
Three, While visiting family in Puerto Rico, I reviewed a massive chart that had been taped together in parts and laid out across a table. It showed my mother's family history in Puerto Rico going back generations and eventually to Spain. I realized how deeply entrenched Latino shame had been built into my family structure. As I was looking at these names: Ortiz, Rodrigues, Toro etc, I started thinking about all the men, all the machismo, all the anger. It was as if I could feel it. I thought of my own father's self-loathing, anger, frustration: Ricardo José Gutiérrez, abandoned by his father at 15, who then moved to Mexico and left my father and his mother to struggle in Oakland California, trying to maintain a pretense of normalcy amidst a largely Anglo community in which my grandfather had propped them up and then left them. I thought of my mother moving to the US from Argentina at eight years old, not speaking a word of English and her stories of being chased home from school for being "Spanish". All of this had been swept under the rug, "white washed". We did not speak Spanish as a first language in our household growing up. This was for a reason I realized. There was deep history here and great shame. Latin America and who I am, where I came from, started to come alive in a completely new light. There were questions that needed to be answered, and I knew that those answers would come through my hands, through making.
Four, two books stood out: I read War Against All Puerto Ricans by Nelson A. Denis, and I read Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano. The latter book happened late in my process but it solidified my thinking. These books lent words, gave value and credibility and guidance to what I had been thinking and feeling but could not coalesce into words. It gave me my "project" as a human, and did so not as an usurping of ideas but as a relevancy to my own life and history. It helped me find what was within that I had not allowed nor understood, that which had not been allowed in my upbringing. Having come to the US at the age of sixteen, I have always felt like an outsider. I grew up mostly in Tokyo, Japan. Arriving in the US as the "Latino kid from Japan" was extremely confusing. I remember being immediately thrust into the school play version of a popular TV show called "Happy Days" that I had never seen before. The school was predominantly Anglo-Caucasian and they were delighted to finally have an "ethnic" kid to play the role of Chachi. I had no idea what these cultural signals meant let alone how to navigate them. Having come to the U.S. at such a late age, I have never felt at home here, and Denis and Galeano allowed me to embrace this, to find strength in this, to make sense of it, to allow it to humanize me, to find my greatest sense of empathy within it, and to contextualize it within a greater family history, to find a voice greater than my story and yet somehow defined by it. Through these books I was granted permission to enter the family dungeon of transgenerational trauma that I had always suspected was there.
Five, three paintings stood out: First was Thomas Couture's Romans of the Decadence, pictured here, second was Episodes of the Conquest: The Massacre of Cholula by Félix Parra pictured two down and lastly Vietnam II by Leon Golub, pictured three down.
I visited the Musee d'Orsay and was entranced by Couture's massive painting. Couture completed the painting in 1847, measuring some 772 cm long by 472 cm high (304 x 186 in). He painted it over three years as a critique of mid-19th century French society. When I first saw the painting I was amazed at what he had done, which was to use history and history painting to portray a very strong and courageous critique of present day society at his time, as if to say "Wake up every one! We are drunk with our own decadence." I was struck by the degree to which Couture had effectively expressed the malaise of an elite echelon of citizens at the apex of its empire from a previous era and used that to critique his own culture and time. I began to understand that Romans of the Decadence speaks across the ages; it is a work of art that is begging future generations to look honestly at the flaws of any empire at any time. Couture, through his great work, is asking us to look at our own social order in our unique time, to question the nature of the "few" versus the "many" and in so doing the very concepts of both empire and nationhood. This single painting allowed me to see a role for the artist in society, despite the depravity of the time, a significant and wholly important role and purpose, which was to both awaken the present and speak to the future, to pass truth in the face of power along to whoever is next in the human story.
The second painting was Episodes of the Conquest: The Massacre of Cholula by Félix Parra, pictured here,1877, oil on canvas, 106 long by 65 high cm (42 x 25 in).
Episodes of the Conquest was a gut wrenching painting when I first encountered it, but it changed over time. It stayed just as painful, but it evolved into something where I began to see it as a way for the artist to show us exactly how psychological trauma is created and how it then will be passed through generations to come. Parra's brutal honesty is in great service to humanity, as hard as it is to look at and consider. It is a very responsible work of art. It does not show us lies. For me this painting embodies, as a precursor, as a harkening forward, the internal mestizo struggle of "Who am I?" The central soldier peers off into this future, as if to say: "What have I done?" or "Here comes hundreds of years of psychological trauma." It is as if this single work of art sets the stage for much of what became of the very people out of which I was born, out of which so many generations to this day can trace their internal conflict. I could not imagine a historical text, nor much of anything else being able to accomplish this feat so succinctly and with such piercing and yet broad emotion.
The third paintings was Vietnam II by Leon Golub, 1150 cm long by 292 high cm (453 x 114 in), 1973.
In grad school I was painting images of war on raw canvas, often tearing into them. One day during a studio visit with a visiting art critic it was pointed out that I should look at the work of Leon Golub. I had never seen his work. Golub's paintings have lived at the center of my artistic sensibility ever since, but somehow in all the years his painting Vietnam II eluded me. In the period where I stopped working this painting came back and made tremendous "sense" to me. The manner in which the canvas is torn and pulled tight made me think of human flesh, of wounds, of real pain. The chunks of missing canvas suddenly made so much sense to me as both brutal symbols of torn flesh and suffering but also as missing parts, hidden truths, the backroom lies of our American psyche, what we choose not to look at or simply can no longer see. In this painting I felt that Golub was asking us, all Americans, to truly confront and understand our inner viciousness, a cruelty we export around the world. This painting told this deep historical and psychological truth in a way that I realized nothing else could. This was the "power" of art, once again, explained to me, but in a more contemporary way. This painting had the power to shatter our mythologies, and do so not intellectually but physically, emotionally, at the level of the reptilian brain. It functioned, for me, like a mirror, showing us who we really are in a way that simply left me understanding how important, in this specific manner, art can, and should be, and it helped me begin to grasp my own aesthetic, to feel more confident in it, that the risk of tearing the canvas apart, gashing at it with a meat cleaver and using the brutally honest images of our conquest of the world, in this case the Vietnam war, were exactly the things I felt and wanted to navigate in my own work. To use the cliche: it inspired me; it helped resuscitate my artistic faith in general and in my own way of making.
And lastly, six, I encountered Rosie Lee Tompkins quilt: "Untitled" (quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1997), velvet, fabric, U.S. flags made of rayon and cotton, woven wool, batik, polyester velour, cotton muslin, rayon linen, gabardine, cotton print fabric, and cotton muslin backing. A few of her quilts were hanging in a small room in a corner of the Texas History Museum in Austin, Texas in a show titled "Quilts of the Civil Rights Era." When I walked in the room I immediately was struck by the fact that the quilts smelled of another time; their materiality, the stitching, the fabrics, the lack of perfect symmetry all combined to transport me into the kitchens of people living through the Civil Rights era, their fears, their hopes, their pains, and their struggles. My heart began pounding. I felt as if I had entered a time machine. I had a completely non-cerebral artistic experience; it was utterly visceral, animal, and left me with a sense of things that are made that live in this world between functionality and art; this new sensibility stayed with me. I didn't know it then, but these quilts had a profound impact upon me and what it would mean to make things in the future. The stitching, seeing how the different elements of the individual quilts were physically sewn together reminded me of skin, of wounds, of the decaying effects of time; most importantly, all of this dense imagery and material carried with it a very real sense that a work of art could function as a device to transport us through time to a bygone era, to hear the voices, to feel them in a way that a documentary film or photographs simply could not.