How the art world finally caught up with a Mexican artist

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How the art world finally caught up with a Mexican artist
Roberto Gil de Montes in a cemetery near his home along the Pacific coast in Jaltemba, Mexico, on Sept. 9, 2023. Gil de Montes has painted for decades, but it wasn’t until 2020 that the global spotlight found him. His work will appear at Paris+ by Art Basel. (Cesar Rodriguez/The New York Times).

by Ray Mark Rinaldi

LA PEÑITA DE JALTEMBA.- Roberto Gil de Montes is not sure how, in his early 70s, he became the art world’s next big thing. He has made the same work for half a century, he insists, painting seven days a week, producing surreal, stylized portraits of ordinary people that he encounters in his daily life.

But an email arrived, not quite three years ago, at his home in the small fishing town of La Peñita de Jaltemba on Mexico’s Pacific coast, where he has lived for more than two decades. It was from a friend who had a friend who worked at a gallery in Mexico City called Kurimanzutto. Would Gil de Montes be interested in a chat about showing some work there? The artist had never heard of Kurimanzutto.

He did a quick call with one of its sales directors, Malik Al-Mahrouky, and then an interview with a co-founder, José Kuri. An invitation to hang some paintings at the gallery followed.

It would be a small showing, just a handful of works in a walled-off section of the space, and the audience would be limited because of pandemic-related restrictions. “There was not going to be an opening,” Gil de Montes said, explaining why he kept his expectations low. “The gallery would be by appointment only.”

In just a few days, though, the paintings sold out.

Kurimanzutto — a top-tier international gallery with a global artist roster — sensed that it was onto a good thing. Soon after, it brought a sampling of the work to the 2021 Frieze art fair in New York. “And at Frieze, the curator for the Venice Biennale, Cecilia Alemani, saw me,” Gil de Montes said.

She gave him a spot in her exhibition, “The Milk of Dreams,” which took place at Venice’s legendary Arsenale in April 2022. Again, he was a hit. The paintings were widely praised and sales to museums and private collectors followed, as did invitations to take part in more exhibitions.

Kurimanzutto will make Gil de Montes the centerpiece of its offerings Friday through Sunday at Paris+ by Art Basel and follow that with a solo show at its satellite gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, from Nov. 10 to Dec. 22.

“Sometimes, it is just a matter of syncing,” Alemani said when asked in a phone interview last month why Gil de Montes’ work was suddenly popular. “If you are not syncing with the time, your work may not get recognized.”

Her point: It is the art world that has changed, not the artist.

“We’re at a moment where people are beginning to look outside of the canon,” Al-Mahrouky said. “And I think Roberto embodies different facets of anti-canon art.”

If outsiders are in, then Gil de Montes has the body of work, and the personal story, to match the moment. “I’ve been called an immigrant, a Mexican, a Mexican American, Hispanic, Chicano, gay, queer, all of that,” he said during an interview at his home.

Gil de Montes was born in Guadalajara and moved with his family to East Los Angeles as a teenager. Early in his career, he connected to the Chicano arts movement in Los Angeles and, in 1978, he was among the founders of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, or LACE, an experimental space that brought wide notice to the city’s art scene.

He has long worked as a professional artist. He was represented for many years by the Jan Baum Gallery in Los Angeles, which closed in 2007. He had regular clients, did a few high-profile public projects, and was featured in numerous solo and group shows.

But things “changed dramatically,” he said, when Kurimanzutto stepped in.

Gil de Montes said he wrestled with the labels people pinned on him, though he acknowledged that they often fit. Like many Chicano artists, he documents scenes of ordinary Mexican and Mexican American life. A nod to his Mexican heritage comes through in the way he integrates iconography from pre-Columbian and Indigenous Huichol culture into his scenery.

As for the queer element, Gil de Montes paints mostly men, frequently young, fit and shirtless. In one of his better-known paintings, “El Pescador,” he pays tribute to Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” though he replaces the Renaissance painter’s naked goddess with a buff fisherman reclining in an oversize seashell.

“I think my sensibility in painting is gay,” he said. “I’m not a misogynist by any means, but I paint men.”

He has come to think of himself as a surrealist only lately because he so often hears the work described that way. His paintings can have a dreamlike quality, with objects that have seemingly little relevance grouped together on the same canvas — humans interact with each other, but also with tigers, owls and turtles. His subjects, always serious and silent in their demeanor, stare directly, even hypnotically, at the viewer. Sometimes their faces are covered in masks, or obscured behind veils.

Gil de Montes often paints from memory, conjuring scenes from years gone by, and that shows in his work, too — things can feel fragmented, vague, illogical. In “The Dream,” from 2013, a man frolics on a beach with a tiger. In “Sunday,” from 2022, three male figures spend a day at the beach; he has given them bodies and towels, and one holds a boombox over his head, but there are no details in their faces.

While the evolving tastes of art collectors have opened the door for artists like Gil de Montes, his particular skill and way of seeing the world were what got him through it, said Rita Gonzalez, the lead contemporary curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and a longtime follower of the artist’s career.

“Roberto’s work is interesting because it’s really transnational — and it was that way long before that term was being popularized and made kind of trendy,” she said. “He’s super American, but he’s also super Mexican, and that’s the hybrid nature of being between cultures.”

These days, Gil de Montes said, he feels more Mexican than American, mostly because of his immersion in La Peñita, where he is most at home. He and his husband, Eddie Dominguez, came across the place on a meandering vacation drive along the coast 35 years ago and fell hard for its inelegant charms. It was the escape they were looking for after many years in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

La Peñita is about an hour’s drive north of Puerto Vallarta, the tourist mecca known for its pristine beaches and endless parties. It is a very different place — dusty and sleepy, low-rise and economically challenged because of the decline of a once-thriving fishing industry. The beaches can be strewn with litter, and some roads are left bumpy and washed out by the tropical storms that pass through every summer.

Gil de Montes lives in a small compound with two houses and a swimming pool on a hill that rises on the edge of town, though he drives a few miles every morning to his second-story loft studio in a concrete building on the town’s main plaza. Like so many homes, restaurants and stores there, it has no air-conditioning even though the region is one of Mexico’s hottest.

The artist thrives on the remoteness, the quietness. He has never been one to interact much with other painters or gallerists and is known to skip exhibition openings and parties. His disposition is more suited to “a figure painter from a small town,” as he describes himself, than an internationally celebrated artist.

“It’s funny,” he said. “It makes me uncomfortable that there’s recognition of my work, even though I spent all those years trying for that.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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