Arte Tortilla, Arte Latino
February 1, 2008
Struggling to pay for supplies as an art student in college, Joe Bravo decided to save money and paint on tortillas for a class assignment. He remembers a classmate saying she thought it was "a great political statement." The tortillas eventually crumbled, and for a while, so too did his interest in painting on the strange surface.
After graduating he painted murals and worked as a graphic designer. Decades passed. Then, in the late 1990s, he began to return to the tortilla, painting this time with sturdy acrylic mural paints and perfecting his craft with glazes, preserving the tortilla in a rubbery shell so that his art would last. He also started choosing Chicano images like chili con carne and Latino icons like Che Guevara. But little did he know that his concept of painting on the unlikely canvasses would be the work to bring him international fame. He thought perhaps it would always be considered just a novelty.
Bravo’s latest exhibit opens today with 40 pieces in the Main Gallery of Park City’s Kimball Art Center, as part of the greater Arte Latino group show that includes Latino-themed artwork by Summit County students. His work arrives at the center following his most successful year as an artist.
There was an underground buzz about Bravo’s tortilla work in California, but what propelled him into the mainstream was his decision in 2006 to go larger, from 13 inch to 28-inch tortillas, to compete with other artists in group showings. Reuters shot photos of his work and word spread to China; in March, 2007, talk-show host Tyra Banks saw his work in the Los Angeles Times and invited him as a guest on her program. Later, the Washington Post also wrote an article on his work and he became a featured guest on CBS’s The Early Show.
Bravo even made the funnies: Cartoonists Hector D. Cantu and Carlos Castellanos made his tortilla art the focus of their strip, "Baldo." In it, an old couple is sitting at the breakfast table and the woman’s reading the newspaper telling her husband, "This artist is getting attention because he paints images on tortillas." The husband says, "Well, sales must be booming." "No, his business is flat," the wife responds.
"There’s so much press out there about me, I can’t keep track," he says in a phone interview with The Park Record. "I have clippings in Chinese and Spanish."
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Shedding his former concerns of being pigeon-holed as simply a novel act, Bravo says he believes his tortilla work has attracted national and international interest because it reaches beyond the merely novel.
"What’s great about this tortilla art is that it impacts people on different levels," he explains. "At first it’s the obvious, the traditional Latino meal and that saying, ‘You are what you eat.’ I think it’s just representative. The tortilla is an integral part of the Latino culture and my heritage. The tortilla gives us life and I give it new life by making it art."
Like a sculptor who works with a marble slab’s veins to determine form, Bravo says he works with each tortilla’s varied surface where a spot is burned and where another spot bubbles up determines what he paints.
"It’s almost like collaboration," he says. "I play up the fact that it’s a novelty and it’s a joke, you know? It’s the thing I discovered early on: if you paint the tortilla, you won’t know it’s a tortilla underneath, so it’s important to let the tortilla come out in texture."
Bravo likens his method of searching for the image on the face of a tortilla to the concept of pareidolia, which he defines as a person’s natural inclination toward discerning faces or figures in unlikely surfaces like clouds.
"I paint the Virgin de Guadalupe because so many people have said they’ve seen that image on a cheese sandwich I’m just expanding on that theme," he says.
Last summer, for a show in Hong Kong, Bravo expanded his imagery to Chinese iconography, painting panda bears and dragons on his tortillas. "It’s not just Latino art," he insists. "My show in Hong Kong was received really well and it gave me the idea of maybe doing other cultures and using the tortilla as a bridge between other cultures. I’m a Chicago, Latino, but I’m still an American. I’m an artist. Art is self-expression. "
Pam Crowe-Weisberg, executive director of the Kimball Art Center says Joe Bravo was discovered by one of her employees who brought back an article when she was in Los Angeles. "That’s how we find a lot of our shows, just snooping around, just traveling," she says. "I think there’s so much out there. You can’t just look in one place."
In the past two years, the Arte Latino exhibit has showcased Utah’s Latino artists, but this year Crowe-Weisberg decided to bring a different perspective to the show. All told, including student work inspired by Latin American culture, there will be 250 pieces presented in Arte Latino.
Like Bravo and his tortillas, the message of the show is to serve as a kind of bridge to the Latino community.
"The Latino population in this state is growing considerably every year and in the whole country," Crowe-Weisberg explains. "There are a lot of talented, hard-working incredible Latino people in this community and I think it’s our way of celebrating their culture."
See it: Arte Latino and The Tortilla Paintings of Joe Bravo
The Kimball Art Center shows the exhibit, "The Tortilla Paintings of Joe Bravo" and the Latino-themed Wasatch Back Student Art Show through March 30.
The museum is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed
Tuesdays) and weekends from noon to 5 p.m. While admission is free, donations are encouraged.
The show’s celebration will take place March 8 at 6 p.m. The community reception will feature complimentary samplings by Tumaro’s Gourmet
Tortillas and live music by Salt Lake City-based Salsa Brava and their Flamenco Dancers.
For more information, call 649-8882 or visit Kimball-art.org.