By LUCY GUANUNA
ECHO PARK — The Echo Park of the late Carlos Almaraz was a far cry from what it is today. In the 1970s and 1980s, when the Chicano painter lived in the neighborhood, gang violence plagued the area and discarded weapons and drug paraphernalia were frequently found at Echo Park Lake. But the park depicted in Almaraz’ works is serene and idealized while remaining enigmatic and engaging.
“From his night scenes of the park, you get a sense that there is something more going on than what you actually see,” says his widow, artist Elsa Flores Almaraz. “There’s something there; it’s not just the landscape, there’s a deeper, more mysterious element.”
One of Almaraz’s most acclaimed works, the 24-foot-wide painting titled Echo Park Lake, is one of 65 pieces now on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibition, Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz, is part of Pacific Standard Time, which is showcasing Latino and Latin American art in exhibits across the Los Angeles area
The LACMA show is a large-scale survey of the work Almaraz produced in his Downtown studio in the 11 years before he died of AIDS in 1989 at the age 48. Playing with Fire features numerous paintings of Echo Park, a recurring subject in his work that includes chaotic downtown cityscapes, erotica and haunted dreamscapes painted in jubilant colors.
In 1965, Almaraz left Los Angeles for New York, drawn by its thriving minimalist and pop art scenes. After living there for 6 years, a fight with a toxic alcoholic lover forced him to move back to Los Angeles. Almaraz moved in with his friend, fellow artist Frank Romero, who lived in Echo Park. Here, Almaraz, battled alcoholism that was aggravated by conflicting feelings about his bisexuality.
Almaraz also emerged as one of the stars of the politically charged Chicano art-scene of the 1970s. His work, and that of Romero and two others, were included in a groundbreaking museum show of Chicano art at LACMA in 1974.
From his apartment, Almaraz would often hear car crashes on the nearby 101 Freeway during a period when he started suffering from anxiety. Almaraz would close his eyes and he would see the crashes, said Flores. His therapist advised that Almaraz start painting the car crashes, giving rise to a series of work that is also on exhibit.
“Even though part of him yearned for this idealized and serene park setting, he was very well aware of the calamities, catastrophes and chaotic energy that swirled around city” said exhibition curator Howard M. Fox.
In contrast to fiery crashes, Almaraz’ Echo Park Lake offers a panoramic view of the tranquil and stately park in the heart of the neighborhood. The painting, considered Almaraz’ magnum opus, is made up of four separate panels that show the lake during different times of day. From left to right, the panels depict a glowing moonlit night passing through to a radiant morning painted in pink and orange hues with a bride and groom in the foreground and ending at dusk with the bungalow that Almaraz lived in painted into the background.
“The park was his playground and his place to look for love, so he had both an aesthetic and romantic attraction to the park,” said Fox of the park, which was known to be a gay cruising spot that Almaraz had frequented.
Flores, who is co-directing a documentary on Almaraz’s life, said that her late husband is finally being recognized for the American master artist that he was.
“People have tried to label him as a Chicano artist or a gay artist, but he defies all labels,” said Flores.
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