BACK IN APRIL, David Tineo was hard at work on the 200th mural he's painted in Tucson. This time around his collaborators were students from Pueblo High School.
It had been a tough project; funding was tight and the work itself is enormous. A 2,000-square-foot painting in the lobby of Kino Hospital, "Passage of Time" has an elaborate narrative that starts with a native story of creation, goes through Arizona history and ends in the present. It's the kind of work Tineo has been doing for more than 20 years all over Tucson: using murals laced with the fertile imagery of Mexican folk art to enliven the city's spaces and to teach locals their history and mythology.
This time around, somebody outside of town noticed.
"I was finishing that mural and I had a call from Washington, D.C., that I had been nominated for an award from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation," Tineo says. "They give the awards to acknowledge people who contribute to the community through the arts."
Tineo's contributions to his community would be hard to ignore. They're physically present in murals everywhere from the Tucson Museum of Art to El Charro restaurant, and from schools in the barrios on up to schools in the Foothills. Last year, Tucson Weekly readers voted him best local artists; this year he eventually was named one of 23 winners of the Rauschenberg prize.
"I was very honored," he says. "I was the only muralist among them."
The prize included a trip to Washington, D.C., and a visit with the great man himself. Rauschenberg, now 72, is one of the most influential American artists of the last half-century. Moving away from the purist abstract expressionism of the '50s, Rauschenberg made "combine paintings" that added found objects to the hallowed materials of oils and canvas. A patchwork quilt, say, was affixed to a canvas, and dripped with black, white and red paint.
At a reception for the award winners, art educators hailing from 21 states, Tineo had a chance to chit-chat with Rauschenberg, who told him, he says, "Keep on painting."
That encounter has already helped contribute to a new direction in Tineo's private art, which is on view right now in a solo show at Raices Taller (Roots Workshop). The new collective gallery in the Warehouse District, founded last winter by a group of Tucson Hispanic artists, is exhibiting member Tineo's Espejos de Mi Vida (Mirrors of My Life). The show offers fans of Tineo's murals a peek at his rarely seen portable paintings on canvas, panel and burlap. And while there are plenty of flaming hearts, skulls and jaguars in these pictures, the new paintings are inspired less by Chicano mythology than by the artist's own life.
"I usually don't have this kind of show," Tineo says. "This work is very personal." The new paintings touch on his turbulent marital history, he explains, and reflect on his vocation.
"Artist and Model," a metaphor for the artist life, can also be read as an homage to Rauschenberg. Tineo usually draws eminently readable images, but here his lines have been broken down into a kind of graffiti. Thick black strokes, painted with a rather dry brush, sketch out disembodied body parts that are not that easy to see at first: a pair of breasts at center, faces at top and bottom. Like Rauschenberg, Tineo has disrupted the flat canvas plane, gluing on an extra curve of cloth that curls out three-dimensionally, and added assorted found objects. Newsprint, a photo of an Aztec god, artists' brushes and a wide palette knife are glued intermittently across the surface.
A few other paintings, too, shatter Tineo's usual narrative cohesion. To be sure, "Corazón Mío" has at its center one of Tineo's blazing hearts, an all-important element in Chicano iconography, referring both to Aztec ritual and to Christian redemption though the blood of Jesus. But the distortion of the figures gazing on the heart goes back to Picasso. And another work, the politically oriented "Guernica de Mexico" revisits Picasso's classic antiwar work in Latino guise, complete with pyramids, a heart, jungle plants, a skull and a face emitting a fearsome scream. It's painted on bamboo, a humble material that Tineo says honors the oppressed of Mexico, the peasants slaughtered in Chiapas, Guerrero and elsewhere in Mexico.
"Our responsibility is to reflect so humanity does not repeat (the past)," Tineo says. "These issues need to be talked about."
A couple of other works allude to the ambiguous status of the Chicano in the U.S. An angry Latina woman is nestled in an American flag in "Que Vengas Pronto" (Come Quickly). In "La Mescla" another woman holds a vicious-looking bird that's biting a snake; she's draped in a flag that alternates between the U.S. stars and stripes and Mexican red, green and white.
The artist says he plans to be more selective with mural commissions in the future; similarly, he sees himself moving beyond the explicit identity art of Chicanismo. Still, much of the work in the show is firmly within the Mexican-American tradition. His palette's hot reds and oranges and searing violets come from Mexican folk art, reinforced by the boldness of his murals. A series of comical skeleton paintings draw directly on the dancing calaveras of Dias de Muertos ("Death supports me," the artist shrugs, noting that his skeletons sell very well). The paintings of the conventional skeletons and erotic angels look half-hearted, though, as if the artist himself has grown weary of their familiar imagery.
More interesting is "Corazón Triste (Sad Heart)," a 1998 canvas soaked in sadness. The piece imaginatively reworks the traditional doves and hearts and skulls and flames of Mexican art. Richly pigmented and assembled into an inventive configuration, these standard elements undergo a transformation, moving from the prosaic to the provocative.
Espejos de Mi Vida, a show of paintings by David Tineo, continues through Saturday, July 17, at Raices Taller, 222 E. Sixth St. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. For more information call 792-9619.