There are 11 paintings by Pablo Cruz-Ayala, collectively titled Intersections of an Immigrant, at Finch Lane Gallery and one at Salt Lake Community College, where it’s part of their 75th Anniversary Alumni Show. In them, Cruz-Ayala employs a wide variety of media, but the first impression they make is that they’re far more different than that can account for. While each is realistic, each reality feels different from those around it, so that each one feels almost like the first time out. Even the two versions of “Offrenda al Tierra” (Offering to the Earth) have little in common beyond their bare outline. It’s as if the entire body of work was actually painted by a team of like-minded artists, who use the pronoun “they” not so much to avoid telling he from she, but to acknowledge the several inner persons that they feel themselves to be. It might be what Walt Whitman, the Civil War-era poet who was many things, though gender binary was not among them, meant when he wrote “I contain multitudes.”
It’s also possible that, unlike so many Utah painters who grew up immersed in art, studied and practiced while apprenticed to various academic artists, and then went on to work as a professional, Cruz-Ayala has had to rely more on instinct. This may explain why the technique of “Migration without Integration” is unique in the way it distinguishes the migrant from this new home, which it does by using embroidery to represent the protagonist kneeling on the road, against a painted landscape that seems accordingly inaccessible. It’s a very different code from that seen in “Emergency without Language,” where everything is done in the same paint and the isolated figures feel overwhelmed to the view, as though by a blizzard of information they are unable to process, in an alien tongue — even though it may be their third or fourth language.
Cruz-Ayala uses the looping, paint-laden brush work of Vincent’s “Starry Night” in the desert sky of “Lamppost Inquisition,” but dry, rapid streaks in “Interstates Past and Present.” To say of it, “whatever works” is to demean a natural skill that permits the invention of whatever conveys the concept best. Then there’s the powerful technique of “Memories are Dew,” in which an immaculate house, no doubt a never-to-be forgotten early home, is seen through a porous screen — a dream, perhaps — the way dew condenses out of air during the cool hours before dawn.
Like many of today’s artists, Cruz-Ayala has a story, a history that begins in the war for the independence of México from Spain, which preceded but also parallels today’s battles over gender, ethnicity, and citizenship. Certain figures recur in reference to that story: the abuela and the mother, as though the matriarchy underwent a sea change between generations or across borders. Cruz-Ayala, though, has had the good sense to preserve the nuanced relation between the story and the art and not to give the story away wholesale, as so many of today’s figures can’t help doing. The narrative, after all, is not the same matter as the art, which draws on it subconsciously for inspiration fed by recollection. The narrative is a story, with a beginning and a middle, and some day perhaps an end. A painting is not a story: rather, it is one incendiary moment, and has as its purpose to foreground something that is much too pressing to allow it to become submerged in the great sea of images and memories.
Much of what motivates Cruz-Ayala to create is surprisingly scientific. An interest in Ethnography led to studying the impact of Spain’s devastating invasion of México, the results of which can be felt in “Conquest of Teotihuacan,” which refers to the valley a subway stop away from the capital city, where the world’s largest pyramid still stands amid a cultural desert that belies the rich civilization that built it. Paradoxically, modern research has led to the discovery of a people subsequently lost for two thousand years, the Teuchitlan, whose ruins were found near Guadalajara in 1969. “Lamentations Across Guachimontones” celebrates them, the only people known to have built round pyramids. The continuing unfolding of such stories, even as antique artworks of great power that were buried, whether by earthquakes or the padres, are dug up and finally appreciated, is part of the context in which Cruz-Ayala works.
Wherever the struggle for documentation, in all its forms, is being waged, education and healthcare will play a part. Cruz Ayala’s resume, in addition to art activities at UMFA and Arts de México en Utah, includes a dual bachelor’s program at the U of U in not just painting and drawing, but Biomedical Engineering: too briefly put, anatomy from both the outside and the inside. Another such dual enterprise involves the neglected artistic quality of the handful of surviving books, among the thousands systematically destroyed by the invaders, which are finally reaching a new generation through the texture of Cruz-Ayala’s art. It’s apparent by now that this is an artist whose ambitions are bold and unconstrained by the fragmenting collision of two such contrasting fields as art and science, and even less by a pair of occasionally antagonistic national cultures.
Pablo Cruz-Ayala: Intersections of an Immigrant, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Sep. 21