Emigdio Vasquez needs little introduction in these pages. We've highlighted his works over the years, but recently, unfortunately, it has been in a negative context, such as when Orange police detectives tried to slur his photorealistic portraits of Chicano life in Orange County during the 1970s and 1980s as promoting gang life. Or the majestic murals dotted around Anaheim, Orange, Fullerton and Santa Ana in various states of disrepair, neglected by city bureaucrats. And the grand maestro himself, nowadays living in Arizona for health reasons, rarely making appearances in a naranja that needs his perspective now more than ever.
And it's a damn shame because his legacy as the godfather of Chicano art is well-deserved and should envelop Vasquez in the autumn of his life. Inspired by Diego Rivera, Vasquez set out to glorify ordinary people—immigrants, day laborers and families—by painting them side by side with people who made history, including Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. By positioning these people in a collage-like fashion, Vasquez gave a face to the invisible Latino community, and in his ongoing studies of Chicano life, he helped give them a voice as well: the original Instagram.
The Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in downtown Santa Ana currently hosts “A Tribute to Emigdio Vasquez,” an amazing collection curated by the Orange County Latino Artists Network. The exhibit, which opened at the March downtown art walk, features Vasquez's works alongside those of 10 artists who were inspired by the muralist.
Bookended by two rooms that feature younger talents, a selection of Vazquez's best-known pieces decorate the length of the main gallery's walls. A large Latino family stands together in quiet dignity in Proletarian Family. A group of sharply dressed, well-groomed pachucos play a game of pool in Mike's Pool Hall. An aging man hit by the Great Depression leans somberly against a storefront window at golden hour in the gloriously Steinbeckian Hard Times. A vast range of experiences is told in the minutest details—facial expressions, colorful clothing, street signs, even hairstyles. The only information lacking in this show are the titles; while they are missing from Vasquez's works, the titles for the other artists' pieces are clearly marked. Without such clues, you're left to your own imagination and must reflect deeper on Vasquez's visual storytelling.
The other artists bring an incredible sense of synergy to the exhibition in the way their works connect to an important theme or genre of Vasquez's paintings. The quiet, wide-angle, watercolor paintings of Gregg Stone vibrantly capture bustling Latino city life, while Jess Valenzuela's Impressionist folk-art landscapes are reminiscent of Vasquez's illuminating forest landscapes. Henry Godines' photorealistic paintings carry within them tiny symbols charged with political, social and spiritual connotations, most memorably in Every Step of the Way, in which an indigenous man on his knees meets your gaze with his heart in his hand.
Vasquez has never wavered in his style or in his ability to tell stories about real people for the people. The striking familiarity of his work not only speaks to Mexican-Americans, but has been in the background of every Orange Countian who has lived here since the 1980s, as well. After spending just a couple of minutes at OCCCA, you'd be hard-pressed to remember when an art show felt this much like home.