Living in ‘El Norte’ Essay by Deborah Boehm

The Capital City Arts Initiative [CCAI] is honored to present Living in ‘El Norte’, an exhibition by artist Blanco de San Roman at the CCAI Courthouse Gallery, September 14, 2012 – January 18, 2013. In conjunction with the project, anthropologist and writer Deborah Boehm, PhD, wrote the following exhibition essay. CCAI extends its appreciations to Turkey and Peter Stremmel for their lead donation supporting the exhibition and to Blanco, Deborah, the Carson City Courthouse, and all those involved in the exhibition.

The Universality of Daily Experience

Among the most moving portraits are those that intimately capture a subject in everyday life. In Living in ‘El Norte,’ Rafael Lopez de San Ramon Blanco—whose artistic name is Blanco de San Ramon—does precisely that, introducing viewers to Alma and Ramiro, two immigrants who came from Mexico to the United States as children, as a way to explore the subject of undocumented migration.  The collection of pieces depicts Alma and Ramiro in the current day, as they move through the multiple spaces of quotidian life:  Alma on the couch with her children or against the breathtaking sky of northern Nevada and Ramiro on the campus of the University of Nevada or at a local bar surrounded by friends.  The paintings, paired with the subjects’ own words, present what the artist calls a “human context,” and, indeed, viewers will immediately recognize the universality of daily experience—meaningful, enjoyable, challenging, pensive moments, alone and with others.  Living in ‘El Norte’ is notable for both its form and message, providing social commentary through compelling visual images.

Trained as a classical painter, Blanco follows the tradition of realism, but also goes beyond.  Early in his studies, Blanco was heavily influenced by the work of Gerhard Richter, especially the piece “Lesende (Reading)” which is part of the collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  However, Blanco also departs from Richter in significant ways; although Richter argues in The Daily Practice of Painting that a “portrait must not express anything of the sitter’s soul, essence, or character,” Blanco’s intention is to present the subject’s persona in a manner that facilitates interaction or “human contact.”  Blanco paints from photographs, and although his paintings are realistic depictions, he also brings new perspective to the original image.  The work comes artfully alive:  Blanco wants viewers to be there with the subjects, “to hear their breath” and to view an image “so real that it is surreal, almost magical.”  Blanco describes his work as representational painting—like photography, the pieces are both real and constructed, depictions of reality that are mediated by the artist and his brush.

Blanco skillfully captures the beauty of real life.  Especially striking in the pieces is how he represents dramatic light on the human form:  multiple shades of light and shadow, telling facial expressions, the release of emotion.  In Alma 3, she stands on dry earth with Reno in the distance, holding the flags of Mexico and the United States; the sky above seems borderless as Alma contemplates the two nations she straddles.  In Ramiro 1, viewers encounter a gaze that is both distant and intimate, difficult to interpret and yet surprisingly familiar, capturing the complexities of Ramiro’s relationship to diverse homelands:  a young man born in Mexico, who crossed without papers as a child and went on to serve in the U.S. military.  Here, Blanco establishes a “personal connection”—his own relationship with the people he paints, but also a space where viewer and subject come into dialogue.  Blanco wants viewers to connect with the art and the subjects, and he successfully fosters interaction between the people he paints and those who see his work.

While some artists prioritize form over content, for Blanco the message is central.  As a Spaniard who has lived in the United States for nine years, Blanco considers Mexican migration to the United States from a unique vantage point.  He is both insider and outsider in his study of unauthorized migration:  an immigrant who came with documents, a Spanish speaker not from Mexico, a long-time resident of the United States born and raised in another country.  Blanco explores the nuances of membership in the nation—especially in a painting that features a question from the 2010 U.S. Census about race—and the theme of belonging weaves throughout each piece.  As he completed the work, Blanco was inspired by Nevada’s own Robert Laxalt, and in particular Sweet Promised Land, from which he includes an excerpt in the exhibition:  “our mothers and fathers were truer Americans than we, because they had forsaken home and family, and gone into the unknown of a new land . . . and had given us in our turn the right to be born American.”

As Blanco explains, realistic artwork is a way to counter the invisibility of unauthorized migration and to make his art—and the subject matter—accessible to a broad audience.  The fact that Blanco was friends with Alma and Ramiro before he created the series of paintings impacts the art, conceptually and stylistically, and collaboration between artist and subjects—he extensively interviewed Alma and Ramiro and they often visited his studio throughout the process—contributes to the realism and familiarity of the paintings.  Blanco hopes that his work will evoke multiple interpretations and responses:  “With this project, I wanted that human contact . . . I wanted the viewers to connect with the subjects, hear their voices, see the paintings, see their eyes.”  The pieces in the show are art objects for viewing, but also part of a larger project that “can be used in many different ways.”  Rather than presenting direct commentary, Blanco creates a setting within which viewers can connect to “personal stories” and establish their own discussions about the topic.

Blanco feels that as an artist he has an obligation to describe the events that are happening around him.  Still, as he points out, the spirit of his work transcends the specific case of Mexican immigrants in the United States.  His paintings also convey the experience of global movement in different locations and at different moments in history.  For example, there are parallels between U.S.-Mexico migration and movement from North Africa to Blanco’s native country, Spain, and, beginning with the earliest peopling of the area and extending to today, diverse migration flows have come to define Nevada and the Great Basin.  As Laxalt’s writing reminds us, migrations make up human experience across time and space, in faraway places and close to home.  Movement across diverse “borders” is arguably part of the human condition.  As debates about immigration become increasingly polarized, Blanco takes the conversation in another direction.  Form and meaning converge in this exhibition, through paintings that embody human experience in realistic and striking ways.

Art, from Blanco’s perspective, is not only decorative; a beautiful painting should also present compelling content.  When Blanco views the art of others, he wants to learn something or to think more deeply about an issue; this certainly motivates his own work:  “I want my pieces to have meaning.”  Rather than creating a collection of individual paintings, Blanco considers his artwork to be multi-year “projects” through which he immerses himself in a topic.  And Blanco has already embarked on his next project:  a study of American identity and patriotism as expressed through images, uses, and interpretations of the U.S. flag.  He describes the artistic process as an experiment, an exploration.  Admittedly, Blanco does not know where the path will lead, but he continues to search for a certain purpose in his work.  And while such purpose “could take a lifetime” to master, it is a goal he strives for with each new artistic endeavor.

Deborah Boehm
Reno, Nevada
September 2012

A native of Alicante, Spain, Blanco came to the US as a profesional tennis player and to the University of Nevada Reno as a tennis coach. While at UNR, Blanco was accepted into the University’s Master of Fine Arts graduate program and will complete his MFA degree in the spring. Blanco earned a diploma in carpentry at the IES Virgen de La Paloma in Madrid in 2006 and a BA degree in Art at St. Mary’s College, Moraga, California in 2004. He exhibits his work in Spain and in the western US.

Deborah A. Boehm is an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Anthropology and the Women’s Studies/Gender, Race, and Identity Program at the University of Nevada, Reno.  Her areas of specialization include immigration, transnationalism, and borderlands; gender and women’s studies; childhood and family; and Mexico and the U.S. West.  She is the author of Intimate Migrations:  Gender, Family, and Illegality among Transnational Mexicans (New York University Press, 2012) and co-editor of Everyday Ruptures:  Children, Youth, and Migration in Global Perspective (Vanderbilt University Press, 2011).  She has worked with Mexican migrants in both Mexico and the United States, and also studies the Burning Man community in Black Rock City, Nevada and beyond.