In these dark days, both literally, the depths of December, and in our political climate, the Alfredo Arreguín exhibition at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art will brighten your day, lift your spirits, and soothe your soul. It may also inspire you to activism as well as introduce you to Mexican mythology and spirituality.
Alfredo Arreguín’s paintings immerse us in a wonderland of jungle and seascape, populated by animals, fish, insects and birds. But the jungle and its creatures are more than the sum of their parts: they represent Nagual, guardian creatures of the spirit world who can transform themselves and lead us to alternative views of the world.
Zapata’s Messenger (detail), 1997; oil on canvas, 60 x 48”. Collection of the Artist, photo courtesy Robert Vinnedge
The artist embedded in this wonderland (sometimes almost invisibly), the faces of well known political activists, writers, poets, friends, and occasionally, the artist himself. The faces deeply disguised within the vast details of the paintings, point to Arreguín’s belief in the harmony of nature, the balance of life, and the crucial place that we have within it, rather than outside it. His work has never been more timely or important, as we all despair with the election of a president in Brazil intent on destroying the entire rainforest there for economic profit. Nothing less than the lungs of the planet are at stake.
So plunge into one of his paintings and look at it for a long time, and still come back for more. Explore the dazzling overall intricacy, the detailed patterns, the accomplished linear relationships, the subtle command of color that changes in each work. Then as you visually wander through the paintings, join the butterflies, the birds and the animals in the depths of the jungle.
Arreguín’s several themes, nature, Madonnas, and portraiture overlap and intersect. In every detail of these intricate works, he contradicts the angry rhetoric of racists creating arbitrary divisions in our beautiful world.
Salish Sea 2017; oil on canvas 48 x 60; BIMA Permanent Art Collection; Gift of Cynthia Sears; photo courtesy the artist
Leaping salmon and whales remind us that the survival of the Southern Resident pod of orca is uncertain. As the whales dwindle in response to environmental degradation, and the salmon fail to complete their migration upstream because of dams, Arreguín’s paintings celebrate natural processes and inspire us to protect our Salish Sea.
Arreguín’s life story is unusual. He was born in Morelia, Michoacán Mexico, as an illegitimate child, and passed from one relative to another. On a few occasions, he had the opportunity to be immersed in the jungle, experiences that made a deep and permanent impression on him. He also had enough educational opportunities to learn art as he moved from Morelia to Mexico City. But by extraordinary serendipity, he was invited to live in Seattle by a family he met when they were lost as tourists in Chapultepec Park. As a result, he came to the US in January 1956, and gained citizenship with their sponsorship. After serving in the army, he attended the University of Washington, earning two degrees, then found his way as an artist by the mid 1970s in the style that he still practices.
He began to appear in major exhibitions almost immediately. The National Museum of American Art acquired his work in the early 1990s. One has to ask why, as yet, the Seattle Art Museum has not given him an exhibition and does not seem to even own his work (I have not been able to verify that). This exhibition includes works from BIMA’s permanent collection, promised gifts, and loans from private collections and the artist himself, totaling almost fifty works for this 50-year retrospective.
Arreguín began honoring Frida Kahlo even in his early work, many years before she became a pop icon. They share a love of folk art, peasant expressions, nature, music, and the sensuality of life. Arreguín transmits folk art patterns and their motifs in one layer of his dense jungle tapestries, but more than that Frida as well as Arreguín embraced the spiritual significance of the people’s beliefs in Mexico, beliefs that survive transformed to this day.
Likewise, Arreguín’s love of literature and language pervades his paintings, sometimes literally in his homages to his Seattle friends Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher, other times more subtly as in his homage to Pablo Neruda. Also, look for his portraits of indigenous environmentalists, well-known activists and historical revolutionaries.
Don’t miss this special opportunity to see almost fifty of his works. Make it a day trip to the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. It is open seven days a week and it is free!
Bainbridge Island Museum of Art
October 13, 2018–February 3, 2019
~Susan Noyes Platt