Romero, Alejandro: 1948—: Painter and Muralist
Alejandro Romero: 1948—: Painter and muralist
The epic art of the Mexican muralist school meets the pulsating energy of Latin American neighborhood streets in the works of Alejandro Romero, one of the best-known and most visible Hispanic visual artists in the United States. Trained in Mexico, Romero moved to Chicago in 1975 and began to adorn that city with murals, posters, and conventional paintings. His emotionally intense works, influenced by European expressionism as well as by Mexican styles, take up a variety of themes—music, the pre-Columbian past, the containment of natural human impulses by the strictures of modern society, the relationship between Mexico and North America, and others—fusing them into a complex and powerful personal vision.
Alejandro Romero was born in the Mexican state of Tabasco, near Veracruz, in 1948, but grew up and attended school in Mexico City. The family lived in the Tepeyac district, known in Mexican religious history as the site of the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe. His mother, who had studied architecture in her younger days, bought him an easel when he was 15 and encouraged him to become an artist. "But," Romero told Hispanic magazine, "I became an artist because it was something in me." Indeed, Romero's nine siblings all displayed a creative streak, and Romero has worked with some of them on creative projects over the course of his career.
Worked in Muralist's Workshop
Romero enrolled in 1967 at Mexico City's Academy of San Carlos, where his mother had studied before him. In his four years at San Carlos, Romero came into contact with many of the giants of Mexican art—Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Juan O'Gorman, among others. The greatest impact came from the politically radical muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, in whose workshop Romero studied in 1969 and 1970. Romero told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he was merely "an assistant to an assistant" to Siqueiros, but he had already met that master of Mexican social realism when he was six years old—Siqueiros patronized a pharmacy owned by Romero's maternal grandmother.
In the early 1970s Romero worked for an advertising agency, did freelance photography work, immersed himself in music, and took short art courses when he could; he studied in Paris, at the Art School of Vincennes, the Artists' Collective in Taos, New Mexico, and the Art Institute of Chicago. His move to Chicago at the end of 1975 was motivated by a search for professional opportunities akin to those of the thousands of other Mexicans who came northward; the number of artists making a living off their works in Mexico was and remains low.
Living in the United States, however, led Romero to rededicate himself to his cultural roots. "In Mexico the spirit of the culture is being eroded," he told Hispanic. "Through art, I help to preserve the most important elements of my culture." Romero settled in the Pilsen neighborhood on Chicago's near South Side, long the nerve center of the city's Mexican community. His presence there helped stimulate the opening of an art gallery and later Chicago's only museum devoted to Latin American art.
At a Glance . . .
Born near Veracruz, Mexico, in 1948; grew up in Mexico City. Education: Studied art at Academy of San Carlos, Mexico City, 1967-71; also studied at Art School of Vincennes, the Artists' Collective in Taos, New Mexico, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Worked for advertising agency and as freelance photographer, early 1970s; moved to Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, 1975; created first of more than 75 event posters shown in Chicago area, 1979; numerous group and individual exhibitions of paintings, 1980s and 1990s; works shown in Canada, England, Japan, and the former Yugoslavia in 1985 alone; active as muralist, 1980s–; sculpture of Virgin of Guadalupe installed, S. 9th and Washington streets, Milwaukee, WI, 2000.
Addresses: Gallery— Ro Gallery, 47-15 36th St., Long Island City, NY 11101; Gallery website— http://www.rogallery.com.
In 1979 Romero first gained wide recognition in what would become one of this most characteristic media: the event-based poster. He has created images for more than 75 posters displayed in the Chicago area, including those for such major events as the Chicago Jazz Festival. The posters fit with the populist aspect of Romero's aims—"A lot of people can't buy my paintings, but they can afford posters," he pointed out to Hispanic— but they were also ideally suited to his style, which tends toward both high impact and complexity. The intense colors of his works attract the viewer's attention to a poster, but his paintings tend to contain multiple elements that may embody various responses to the theme of the event being advertised.
Romero is likewise well known for his murals, of which he has executed at least eight in the United States and Mexico. One Romero mural, "I've Known Rivers," covers the walls of a pedestrian tunnel leading to the terminals of Chicago's O'Hare Airport; another, commissioned by the Chicago Historical Society, depicts the history of the labor movement in Chicago. That work, traversing a span of time from the 19th-century Haymarket Riot to the city's modern Mexican-American working class, shows Romero's debt to the sweeping historical vistas seen in the works of the great Mexican muralists.
Though his art is rooted in Chicago and in his Mexican homeland, Romero has attracted international attention in the art world. In 1985 alone his works were exhibited in group shows in Canada, England, Japan, and the former Yugoslavia as well as in California, and his work has been the subject of individual exhibitions in England and Italy, among other places. In 1996 Romero's work was included in a historical retrospective of art made by Chicagoans at the city's Museum of Contemporary Art, helping to bridge the gap between the the world of experimental contemporary art and the cultures of ethnic communities.
Influenced by European Expressionists
Exhibiting in the public form of the mural has not lessened the demand for Romero's paintings, which sell in the $9,000 range. Often large in format, they are notable for the range of themes they address, his instantly recognizable overall style marked by bright colors, and the use of every inch of the canvas to pack in figures and details that complement the main subject. Romero has linked his style to that of the Expressionist movement in early 20th-century Europe, an artistic development that prized emotion and sheer intensity of experience. "Expressionism is exalting reality and taking it one step beyond," Romero told Hispanic.
Some of his paintings depict Mexican or Mexican-American musicians in a way reminiscent of the classic African-American artists who evoked the world of jazz; other works with musical themes, such as a poster created for Pilsen's Fiesta del Sol, treat musicians more abstractly, as part of a complex of cultural forces. Many of Romero's works reinterpret well-known themes of Western culture: Greek myth or Christian images. One painting of the Minotaur, the bull-human hybrid of Greek legend pursued by Theseus the hunter, was exhibited at the Pilsen neighborhood's Prospectus gallery in 1995. Romero told the Chicago Sun-Times that he considered the man-bull the hero of the myth, striving to escape the shackles of the so-called civilized world.
Romero's works are included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Latin American Art in Washington, D.C., and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, among other major institutions. In the year 2000 he executed a sculptural commission for a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, street corner: a life-size image of the Virgin of Guadalupe with a sheet of steel for the radiant aura that traditionally surrounds the Virgin in visual representations. The work seemed to strike off in new directions, but, as he told Hispanic a decade earlier, his work was in constant development. "The opportunity to freely express myself every day of my life is a great privilege," he said. "I've never regretted it. There is always the pleasure of seeing the continuation and evolution of my work."
Chicago Sun-Times, November 10, 1995, p. 31.
Hispanic, August 1989, p. 11.
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, September 30, 1998, p. Cue-2; September 17, 2000, p. B3.
Wisconsin State Journal, November 1, 1992, p. H2.
—James M. Manheim
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