© TEXAS MONTHLY / SEPTEMBER 1991
by Oscar Garza
THINGS LIKE THIS HAPPEN ONLY IN THE MOVIES. The time was October 1990, and 39-year-old San Antonio artist Adán Hernandez was frustrated with the way his career was unfolding. In the ten years since he had devoted himself fulltime to painting, he had sold only three works.
He had recently allowed the Jansen-Perez Gallery to represent him, but in a city suffering from a recession and with few collectors of contemporary art, the dealers were making little progress in advancing his reputation. Hernandez was so broke that he didn't have money for materials to ﬁnish the painting he was working on, El' Ladrón, a large oil depicting one of his nocturnal urban scenes - narrative works with a dizzying overhead perspective and a lush palette. Hernandez called gallery co-owner Sofia González Pérez one day and told her he was coming downtown to pick up his work, intending to make slides to send to galleries in Los Angeles. She told him to wait because someone in the gallery at that moment was looking at his paintings.
That someone was Bruno Rubeo, a respected Hollywood ﬁlm production designer (Driving Miss Daisy) who was in town scouting locations that could double for East Los Angeles - the setting for Blood In Blood Out, a ﬁlm that would be produced and directed by Taylor Hackford (the director of An Officer und a Gentleman and producer of La Bamba). The movie's story line revolves around three cousins, one of whom is an artist, and the ﬁlmmakers had also been looking for a painter whose work could be used in the movie. They had scoured Los Angeles without luck, but when Rubeo saw Hernandez`s work, he knew it was exactly right. "Adán is the essence, the spirit of Chicano art”, says the Italian-born Rubeo, describing the electric energy and vibrant hues associated with the genre. "He is genuine and real, and his paintings are so cinematic. Some of them even have images that look like a storyboard." Rubeo called Hackford, who was in New York at the time, and told him that he thought he had found their artist. Hackford ﬂew in the next day, took one look at Hernandez's paintings, and was hooked.
Poverty and a near-tragedy gave Hernandez`s work depth.
© Photography by Melanie Rush
Bruno Rubeo in front LA MEDIA LUNA
Oil on canvas (framed)
152 x 152 cm / 60 x 60 inch
© Photography by Adan Hernandez
A drive-in screen ﬁgures in several of Hernandez's works, including LA MEDIA LUNA, a ﬁve- by ﬁve-foot oil that now hangs in Bruno Rubeo's living room. The 1988 painting is typical Hernandez. Space is manipulated and compressed so that disparate locations coexist on the same canvas. The palette is all deep purples and yellows and blues -especially blues - and a strange, twisted perspective is master- fully employed, recalling the manipulation of depth used by the Cubists and Impressionists. In the painting, a mysterious mustachioed man in a fedora stands front and center, his face faintly illu- minated by a cigarette lighter. He seems to be on a hill or a rooftop. Below the man, on the left, is El Capitán Drive-In, showing a couple embracing on the screen. Behind him are a cafe and various downtown buildings. Neon signs and car beams light the night. A palm tree sways in the wind. Ocher stars dot the midnight-blue sky.
Many of the works are populated by pachucos, or punks, who are a crucial element in the ﬁlm, which is about life in the barrio. Rubeo and Hackford each bought paintings for their personal collections. In a matter of months, Hernandez had a ﬁve-ﬁgure contract to paint about twenty canvases for the movie, and the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau reproduced one of his works on a Sunset Strip billboard. Hernandez has taken his newfound fame in stride. On a balmy early-summer Southern California night, he is wrapped in a trench coat and sipping red wine as he sits by the pool in a friend's back yard. Hernandez has a bit of pachuco in him too. The look of the loner ﬁts his handsome pug-nosed face. He is in L.A. to absorb the essence of the city's barrios, reﬁne some of his paintings, and get to know Hollywood. In a sense he's renewing an old acquaintance. When Hernandez was a child growing up in San Antonio, his migrant-worker parents used to pile the kids into their Ford station wagon and head for El Capitán Drive-In on the West Side. Adán Hernandez is back at the movies.
Hernandez didn't always paint in this style. In the early eighties he emulated the superrealism of Jesse Treviño, then San Antonio's best-known painter of Chicano art-a genre with its roots in the sixties civil rights movement. The struggles faced by farm workers prompted the formation of activist groups on campuses throughout the Southwest, and Chicano art was born out of that political experience. Inspired by Mexico and its revolution, Chicano folk artists painted murals on barrio walls in almost every city with a sizable Latino population. In 1967 some San Antonians formed El Grupo, under the leadership of Felipe Reyes and Jesse Almazán, to advance the rights of Chicano artists, who were virtually excluded from the mainstream art world. That group was the foundation of what would later be called the largest, most articulate, and most successful federation of Chicano artists in Texas. It was eventually named Con Safo, a slang term that implies the power to escape bad situations. The group's name was suggested by Mel Casas, its spiritual leader and a member of the art faculty at San Antonio College.
To Hernandez, then just twenty, a structured, much less a political, approach to art was irrelevant. He had enrolled at San Antonio College, where he received his ﬁrst and only formal art training and ﬁrst visited an art museum. But he dropped out after one semester, bored with what he called "the systematic approach to art." He recalls, "I wanted to get down to painting. Finally I got tired of that grind: of drawing the model every day - that was very boring.” He never even realized that Casas was on the faculty. After leaving school, Hernandez had a number of jobs, but every night he would go home and make art, just as he had since he was a kid, traveling with his parents on the migrant trail. In 1980 his wife-to-be, Debi Fischer - a Jerry Hall look-alike from San Antonio - encouraged him to quit work and devote himself to painting. She would support them with her job at Southwestern Bell. But recognition was hard to come by.
PACHUCO CON JUMPER CABLES, 1990
The eighties, termed the Decade of the Hispanic by Time magazine, passed Hernandez by. He was not selected to be in important shows, frequently being criticized for his lack of formal training - that is, a degree.
In late 1984 Adán and Debi had a daughter. He continued to document life on the city's downtown streets in a realist style; subsequently he did portraits of cultural heroes such as musician Flacojimenez and political ﬁgure María Berriozábal. Though his technique was improving, his career was still going nowhere. Then, a near-tragedy complicated things further. One day in early 1986, Adán and Debi's eighteen-month-old daughter, Italia, pushed open a window screen and fell headﬁrst from their second-story apartment onto the steps below, fracturing her skull. Guilt ﬁlled Debi's and Adán's lives as they worried whether Italia would suffer paralysis or brain damage. Unable to sleep, Adán painted, and his work changed radically. The darkness in his life found its way into his art.
LOS BRILLOSOS, 1990
Oil on canvas (framed)
20 x 30 cm / 8 x 12 inch
Collection of Cheech Marin
LOS BRILLOSOS features a canvas divided in half. On the right are two young pachucos standing in front of a lounge, bathed in sunlight. On the left is Hernandez's ﬁrst night scene, including an image from an earlier work of a woman applying lipstick in front of a neon ﬂamingo. Behind a blue wall, the San Antonio skyline is intersected by streets and highways. Even in this ﬁrst roughly executed night work, the hallmarks of Hernandez's evolving style are present: the overhead perspective (a reference to his daughter's fall), car headlights with beams like shooting ﬂames, palm fronds blowing (memories of the Texas coast, where his parents were born), a swirling blue sky lit by orange and yellow constellations.
Italia recovered fully, and the family now includes four-year-old Clay. In the wake of Hollywood's discovery of Hernandez there have been other career developments. William Lieberman, the
chairman of the department of twentieth-century art at New York°s Metropolitan Museum, was in San Antonio for the opening of the art exhibit "Mexicoz Splendors of Thirty Centuries.” While there,
he visited the Jansen-Pérez Gallery, was shown Hernandez's work, and bought two pieces for the Met's permanent collection.
Hernandez's success has been heady stuff for the high school dropout, but he is holding on to his outsider's perspective. He talks about the "alienation and uncertainty that still dominate the Chicano experience”, and he acknowledges los colores de soledad, the colors of solitude that permeate his work - the solitude that Mexican poet Octavio Paz deﬁned as a labyrinth in the Mexican soul.
Such a labyrinth surely exists in Hernandez's soul. His childhood was shaped by days spent in the ﬁelds; he found success in Hollywood's ﬁeld of dreams. He didn't set foot inside an art museum until the age of twenty; twenty years later his own work was purchased by the country's most prestigious art museum. He almost lost a child in a devastating accident, but that event transformed his career. Adán Hernandez is grateful for his good fortune, but it is certainly bittersweet. In a sense, deep down, just like his paintings, Hernandez has got los blues.*
San Antonio native Oscar Garza is the arts editor of the Los Angeles Times.