“The Art of Baja California” at Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens

Poets to the Earth by Benito Ortega Vargas. Courtesy Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens

The works of three extraordinary living Baja California artists fit perfectly into Casa Romantica’s slender gallery. The two distinct painters—landscape master Juan Angel Castillo and folk-surrealist Esau Andrade Valencia—each take half the room, while the small-scale, erotically charged sculptures of Benito Ortega Vargas run right down the middle. The Todos Santos-based sculptor’s bronze or wood constructions sit on or are suspended above pedestals, the better to circle them more than once, taking in each exquisite detail while deciphering how one figurative element morphs into the next.

As intriguing as they are, I was drawn first to Valencia’s highly saturated colors, just as a child would be to a carnival. The Tijuana-based painter zooms in so closely on his subjects that even from a distance, they appear to meet you halfway. But stand nearby, and the layered landscapes in the background stack up from earth to foliage to village to treetops to hills—all the way to the night sky of stars and moon.

Esau Andrade Valencia/Courtesy Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens

In La Vaca features two quarter-moons: One glows in the sky, while the other has a painted face resembling the classic lotería version. It’s the latter that’s cradled by a woman sitting atop the title cow, whose heavy-lidded eyes twinkle with white light. The woman’s hair is pulled back into a red bow, its loops appearing as if they were two water jugs hanging from her head. She wears a soft blue belt but is entangled in a green rope or snake whose end is torn. Was it the cow’s tether, now lazily binding the woman? The bovine, with a touch of that ropey green shadowing its lids and alarmingly red udders, seems to know the sad answer.

While the cow in no way suggests it’s about to jump over the moon, I am reminded how a child’s play brings unrelated things together into new worlds. Valencia taps into that creative ease magnificently. In these nocturnal exteriors, subjects’ eyes either meet a viewer’s gaze or avoid it, no matter where you stand. A monkey sits on one side of a barbell in Strongman and stares nowhere, as if commenting on the idiocy of its task. What could its gravitational pull possibly matter?

In the oil-on-canvas Catrina Cantante, Catrina stands on trampled streamers and flags long after the fair has shut down for the night, when the wisecracks of the lottery caller and the squeals of children have ceased to be heard. Her gesture includes the moon, for she performs her song only for herself and the orb.

My favorite night scene is moonless. Lluvia is rain personified, flying through the storm in a dress much like the clouds from which water pours. Her belt shoots lightning to the ground, and she blows a horn that blares water. The background-to-foreground relationship here differs from the others, as it merges with the drenching rain.

Hanging beside El Sol, La Luna is given a full-moon face with a touch of blue eye shadow and fuchsia lips, her plump chin refusing to be squished flat. That lunar portrait is nothing like its version in Valencia’s Lotería, a grid of 25 small paintings that sometimes diverge from the classic deck of 54. Here, Valencia lets his precise technique go. The edges are blurrier. The fields on which El dado, La paleta, et al. float appear one color until scrutiny reveals a miasma of unused puddles from the artist’s palette. The top-left painting brings a bit of self-reflective humor with El pincel, the artist’s brush.

“Mexican bingo” actually originated in Italy sometime in the 1500s. The game of chance arrived in Mexico in the 18th century, and the deck we see most often today was produced by a Frenchman beginning in 1887.

Valencia’s colors are as bold as those old lotería cards, though he uses very little paint to complex effect. Yes, his work is firmly within the realm of folk art and magic realism, but it triggers an intense subjective response that has staying power through the rest of the exhibit and beyond.

Inhabitants of Deep by Benito Ortega Vargas in carved and found wood, with Esau Andrade Valencia’s paintings beyond.

Self-taught since the age of 6, when his family moved to Baja, Castillo has been capturing the peninsula’s rugged coast for 40 years in works collected by museums and such celebrities as Russell Crowe, Ringo Starr and Frank Sinatra. The plein-air painter’s mural at the Tijuana Cultural Center, Tierra Prometida, offers Baja’s coastline from Rosarito to Point Loma.

His uninhabited vistas on display in San Clemente contain a single moment during the golden hour, representing the violent movement of water as it meets the instability of impenetrable rock. His use of color pushes the boundaries of even the most astounding sunsets. How long and difficult was the hike Castillo took to reach this vantage point? How many times did he watch sea, sky and land from the very spot he offers up to a viewer’s gaze? How many more decades will this wild stretch remain so? Perhaps until it shows up as a selling point in a house-hunting reality show called something like Baja Bound.

Making a line through the painters’ carnivals and far-reaching coasts are Vargas’ sculptures: surprising, mysterious and playful all at once. The fact they are made of such lasting material only adds to their power to astonish. Exchanges between creatures that unexpectedly cross into each other’s worlds evoke earth and sea. In Eternal Lovers, the faces of the flying bodies are coming together for a kiss at much too high a velocity, as if reuniting after eons apart. Alfonsina and the Sea is a leisurely float on erotic waters.

Born in Mexico City and classically trained, Vargas has been a promoter of artistic endeavors throughout his career, co-founding the Taller de Grafica Libre de Oaxaca for printmaking and the Institute of Visual Arts there. He now lives in Todos Santos, which the Mexican government has officially declared a Pueblo Mágico.

Don’t miss these glimpses into Baja’s artistic tradition, which dates back millennia to the cave paintings of Sierra de San Francisco.

Beach by Juan Angel Castillo/Courtesy of Casa Romantica

“The Art of Baja California” at Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens, 415 Avenida Granada, San Clemente, (949) 498-2139; www.casaromantica.org. Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Through Aug. 25. Free with admission ($5).

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