Making It Work In Bridgeport: Judithe Hernandez, Luis de la Torre

Drawing and photographic studies by Judithe Hernandez in her studio

Judithe Hernandez emerged as a significant artist in the Chicano muralista movement of the early 1970’s in Los Angeles.  During a visit this week to her studio in Bridgeport, on the south side of Chicago, she described how painting murals taught her the real power of art.

Judithe Hernandez (left) at her studio with Harriet Kohn, Kerry Hirth and Taryn Treisman

Back in 1976 in L.A., she was asked by a group of white homeowners in a gentrifying neighborhood to work with Hispanic neighborhood youth (most of whom were gang members) to paint a mural on a community center, in the hope that they would stop tagging it with graffiti.  Following contentious community meetings with both distrustful sides, she finally convinced the homeowners that the youth would have to like what they were painting in order to respect and preserve it.  So, apple-cheeked children were nixed in favor of an urban street scene.

Barrio Sotel street gang mural on Stoner Rec. Center, Los Angeles, Judithe Hernandez

 All went well at first:  at 3:00 p.m. every day (after school or after skipping school) the guys (and some of their girlfriends) reliably showed up to paint.  The mural turned out well; just squint and you wouldn’t see the name of the gang on the license plate of one of the cars.
Late on a Thursday, as the group was nearing the finishing touches, the neighborhood went quiet.  Judithe looked over to see a kid they called Hormiga (ant, because he was a little, scrawny kid) being held by the neck by a cop.  As the cop loosed his grip and the kid fell on the ground, Judithe saw a line of police advancing with guns drawn and nightsticks out.  They rounded up the artists/gang-bangers and put them in handcuffs into paddy wagons.
Judithe escaped arrest, guided to safety by a street-wise kid who smelled what was coming before she did.  But the kids, locked up late on Thursday, spent the weekend in jail before they could get bailed out.  A month later, a judge threw out the charges (which were something along the lines of painting while Hispanic).
What was their offense?  Achieving success…  beauty…  doing something successful in the face of those who said they couldn’t.  Years later, Judithe reconnected with some of the kids.  One of them was a college graduate, supporting a family of his own.  Hormiga ended up doing time in prison, and some of the other kids had life sentences for murder.

Fall From Grace, Judithe Hernandez, pastel, 30" X 44"

I told Judithe that her story was reminiscent of the huge mural by world-renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera commissioned by David Rockefeller for his brand-new Rockefeller Center, in 1932.  Although Rockefeller approved Rivera’s drawings, he was incensed when Rivera inserted a reverential portrait of Lenin in a May Day parade.  When Rivera refused to remove the offending face, mounted police surrounded the building, the artist and his helpers were ordered off the scaffold, the mural was draped and later painted over.  (Think of that when you’re watching the Today Show!)

Juarez: Ciudad De Muerte (Juarez: City Of Death), pastel, by Judithe Hernandez

From the struggles of labor in the depths of the Great Depression, to the Chicano Movement in the 1970’s, to the current epidemic of murders of young women in Ciudad Juarez Mexico, many Mexican and Mexican-American artists have focused on the struggle for human rights and dignity.  The Ciudad Juarez crisis, estimated at 500 unsolved murders of young women over the past two decades, is the subject of an outstanding group exhibition at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago.  Judithe Hernandez has several works in this sobering and moving show.   The show continues at 1852 W. 19th St. through Feb. 14, 2010.

Broken Dreams, mixed media on canvas, 39" X 47", Rocio Caballero, Rastros Y Cronicas: Las Mujeres de Ciudad Juarez, National Museum of Mexican Art

Judithe Hernandez currently has a studio in the Artists of Eastbank, a big loft building at 35th and Racine (formerly the Spiegel Catalogue warehouse).  There were several artists working in the building when it was purchased and developed for self-storage units.  The owner, an art-lover, decided to combine the two and invited artists to rent space.   Their website lists 24 artists, news about their activities, and a calendar of exhibits and artists’ news.  The building has open studios in May and October.

Luis De La Torre, showing one of his mini-paintings at his studio

Judithe’s neighbor in the loft building is Luis De La Torre.   The bio on his website states:  Luis De La Torre arrived in Chicago’s neighborhood of Bridgeport at the age of seven. Although he had spent most of his childhood in the states of Jalisco and Nayarít in western Mexico, he was actually born in McAllen, Texas, near the U.S.–Mexico border in 1969. These early years may continue to unconsciously inspire the work of this accomplished and dedicated artist. While his paintings and illustrations do not appear to be overtly Mexican on the surface, many of the ancient Mexican concepts of life and symbols of faith and power continue to appear among his many layers of imagery.
Bonifacio, by Luis De La Torre, oil on canvas, 66″ X 108″

Luis is an artist who marries an unusual sensitivity for materials with a subtle layering of meaning.  He chooses the matte qualities of casein (a milk-based, quick-drying paint) or the delicate luminosity of egg tempera, layering them with slower-drying, glossier layers of oil.  Some of his underlying imagery is recurring images from his Catholic Mexican childhood, e.g.  the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, a skull from Day of the Dead.  He overlays these icons with a scrim of shimmering squares that push and pull in a dimensional illusion.  The paintings have a contemporary, conceptual look with traditional underpinnings– much like the man himself. 

Luis is also skilled at painting scenery for theatrical productions and mural work.  He is currently working on a three-tiered mural for the Columbia Public School in Chicago.  It includes imagery of the Columbia space shuttle, the school’s namesake, as well as some rather eccentric and surreal-looking people that I told him will undoubtedly embed themselves as a mysterious presence in the psyche of many impressionable little minds.

If you’re exploring the art scene in Bridgeport, also check out the Zhou B. Art Center, further east on 35th St.  The whole area is very close to the Pilsen Art District, which hovers around 18th and 19th streets between Ashland Avenue on the west and Halsted Street on the east.  More on that another day…)


2 responses to “Making It Work In Bridgeport: Judithe Hernandez, Luis de la Torre

  1. Judithe Hernandez’s work has inspired me for years. In her stunning and devastating piece about the women of Juarez the image of the crucifixion goes hand in hand with the women at the crossroads between two cultures and between life and death.


  2. Yes, Judithe is a phenomenal artist. I am so grateful to have met her. Look for her work at the National Mexican Fine Art Museum in Chicago. Luis is still at CSU until next week. Wonderful article and great examples of these artist’s work.


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