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Rupert Garcia
(French Camp, California, 1941 - )

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Over the course of his artistic career, Rupert Garcia has employed complex and compelling images to address a variety of moral, aesthetic, and spiritual dilemmas. An active participant in the Chicano movement, his posters, prints, and paintings from the 1960s often addressed the racism and inequality endured by many ethnic minority groups. Garcia’s subversive use of iconic imagery calls into question the underlying ideological structures of American society and gives voice to disenfranchised people around the world.

Garcia was born in 1941 in the small San Joaquin Valley agricultural town of French Camp. As a child growing up in the nearby city of Stockton, he enjoyed drawing and copying images from popular magazines and comic books—a practice that would greatly influence his mature artwork. During high school he associated with a group of friends he has referred to as a mix of “the Third World and poor whites—a group of Orientals, Negroes, Oakies, and Mexicans,” and in 1965–66 he served in the U.S. military and was sent to Indochina. 1 Beginning in 1966, Garcia studied painting at San Francisco State College, where he was most influenced by John Guttman, a social photographer who introduced him to a cadre of progressive European artists.

Perhaps of most significance to the development of his social conscience, however, was his participation in the 1968 student strike organized by the Third World Liberation Front, a coalition of Chicano, Latino, Asian, and African-American students demanding an end to Eurocentric education, and improved opportunities for minority students and staff at San Francisco State University. The strike solidified Garcia’s leftist political stance and led him to create the bold designs that would be silk-screened onto posters and used at rallies and protest marches throughout California. Using a similar bold, graphic style, Garcia began creating large-scale pastel paintings based on iconic images he found in newspapers, magazines, and books. Discouraged by the cool detachment of American pop art, which to Garcia represented mainstream America’s political disengagement, his most notable paintings from this period were portraits of political activists and artists.

Garcia’s monumental paintings of popular icons such as Lucio Cabanas, Inez Garcia, Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, and Diego Rivera are more than simple political propaganda. “As far as I can remember,” Garcia once explained, “I have always been interested in referring to images that already have built-in to them an audience, be it thousands who look at the photographic reproduction in the San Francisco Examiner, be it millions who see it in Time Magazine.”2 The way that Garcia radically cropped, enlarged, and re-framed each portrait questions the “reality” of the original image and exposes the way that the mainstream press often simplifies complicated cultural, social, and political icons to make them easily consumable.

In 1982, Garcia painted prominent German poet, playwright, and theatrical reformer Bertolt Brecht, whose political and social values he surely admired. A supporter of Marxism who joined the Communist Party in 1929, Brecht developed a form of drama called “epic theatre” that encouraged audiences to resist the theatrical illusion induced by staged performance. In the early 1940s, Brecht traveled to Los Angeles and tried unsuccessfully to write Hollywood film scripts. After being accused, and then acquitted, of un-American activities in 1947, he fled abruptly to Switzerland. Garcia’s portrait of Brecht, based on a widely circulated image of the writer, signals Garcia’s profound admiration for him as communicated through his sensitive treatment of Brecht’s intense and thoughtful gaze.

In many ways, Garcia’s paintings function similarly to Brecht’s theater—encouraging viewers to scratch away at the glossy surface of accepted icons to expose the significant cultural and political layers beneath. In 1988, Garcia joined the faculty of the school of art and design at San Jose State University, where he continues to teach today. Like Brecht, according to art historian Peter Selz, “Garcia feels that art can indeed increase social consciousness and help bring about a change in the political order—not merely reflect it.”3 —A.W.

1. Rupert Garcia, quoted in Ramón Favela, “The Pastel Paintings of Rupert Garcia: A Survey of the Art of the Unfinished Man, Inside-Out,” The Art of Rupert Garcia, exh. cat. (San Francisco: The Mexican Museum, 1986), 16.
2. Ibid., 7.
3. Peter Selz, Rupert Garcia, exh. cat. (San Francisco: Harcourts Gallery, 1985), 4.

(SJMA Selections publication, 2004)

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