Denver artist Tony Ortega’s attic studio overflows with framed prints he has made during his three-plus decades as a professional artist.
Chicano-style prints made with colorful pastels and paints hang from the walls. His proliferative output is partially the legacy of his grandmother, a Spanish-speaking New Mexican who worked as a seamstress. He credits summers spent at her house with helping him realize his artistic ambition.
“When I was a little kid, I would hang out with my grandmother a lot, and she would give me a needle and thread,” Ortega says on a sunny morning in his studio. “I guess I always knew I wanted to be creative.”
He grew up as an “understanding bilingual” and became fluent in Spanish after studying abroad in Mexico during college. His familiarity with both cultures continues to inform his work.
Ortega, an associate professor at Regis University, grew up splitting time between Denver and New Mexico, and his work occupies an intersection of Latino and Gringo culture. An exhibit of his work, Mestizo Hybridity, is currently on display at the Firehouse Art Center in Longmont, and his focus is on the demographic change in the United States that accompanies Latino immigration.
The Firehouse pieces exhibit a breathtakingly simple quality to them; they are overtly political yet are blissfully free of the heavy-handedness much social art possesses. They depict workers doing jobs like farming, housekeeping and baking, often overlaid on a concert poster or other document.
Ortega works in mixed media, using pastels, printmaking, acrylics, collage and more. When Ortega paints people, he gives the figures lifelike details — an elbow slightly cocked outward, hands casually placed in pockets, a foot placed in front of the other, a slight bend in the torso to one side — but he doesn’t draw faces. The contrast of the realist bodies with the faceless heads lends the figures an everyman kind of feeling, which grows stronger as he incorporates different media into the mix.
One piece, “Western Union,” uses the yellow, Spanish-language forms for wiring money to Mexico (“Para enviar dinero a México”) as a canvas. Ortega uses three of these documents. He draws a man slicing bread on the first, a pair of ranch hands on the second, and a maid making a bed, perhaps in a hotel, on the third. The figures are not representations of individual people, but depictions of a culture.
Ortega’s pieces at the Firehouse work with archetypical figures, but he also uses stereotypes in the exhibit. Speedy Gonzales graces several prints, appearing superimposed on top of the Statue of Liberty and in front of a group of men. The Chihuahua from the Taco Bell commercials also appears, laid behind images of Rod Stewart, Our Lady of Guadalupe and a can of Campbell’s “Pozole,” a clear reference to Andy Warhol’s iconic soup can.
“With my work, I’m trying to say that Latino culture is more complicated than stereotypes, than Mexican immigrants who just crossed the border,” Ortega says. “It isn’t just where Tijuana and San Diego meet. You see it in Denver, Boulder, Longmont. … The border moves; it immigrates.”
Ortega relays a story from when he was younger about how he noticed a number of posters for Mexican bands popping up around Denver. The groups would tour up through New Mexico and Colorado and play the National Western Stock Show, he says. The image stuck with him because it showed so lucidly how the workers who came up from Mexico — to do jobs Americans didn’t want, he says — brought their culture with them.
Posters appear in his art as well.
There’s a print at the Firehouse featuring four men relaxing, over which there is a Speedy Gonzales figure and a piece of a poster advertising a Mexican art show. It’s a portrayal of immigrants bringing a culture into another country, and that country’s attempt to create media based on them, as well as that culture’s attempts to define itself.
Immigration brings vast cultural changes, and Ortega’s art tries to reconcile and recognize the differences that naturally arise.
“Our southern border is no longer just El Paso, Juarez,” Ortega says. “The border also exists here in Denver, in Los Angeles and in Phoenix. It either expands or is shot full of holes. Cultures and languages mutually influence each other. … My artwork reflects the integration of culture, history, religion and the changing demographics of Latinos in the United States.”