Gerardo Monterrubio’s Psychological Collage: Ceramics as Autobiography

De Mala Muerte, 21 in. (53 cm) in length, porcelain, underglaze, overglaze, 2015.

Gerardo Monterrubio’s forms and their content are incongruous and surrealistic––friezes of funerals, bullfights, street scenes, beautiful women, religious imagery, ritual, and violence. Dark and personal scenes incorporate autobiographical references. Through shifting scales and discontinuous surfaces, his subject matter reconfigures the mythic and ordinary through disorienting images that scramble time and memory. His work conveys challenging themes—at the heart of his practice is a passionate desire to comment on deep flaws within society and communicate his own experience as an immigrant and observer of contemporary urban life. Monterrubio uses his ceramic structures as narrative and figurative media, a distinctive surface creating an intimate story. As well as autobiographical material, his surfaces offer imagery representing fantastical states of metamorphosis and conflict. He creates ceramic totems that fuse painting, sculpture, drawing, doodling, and storytelling while roaming through religion, history, and popular culture. His objects are the stage for his renderings of a blended culture—that of Mexico and the US. The diversity of his work is a metaphor for an existence in which there is not one predominant culture, but many voices existing simultaneously.

Fusing Disparate Styles

Like an intensely compact panorama, each sculpture demands that the viewer move around it to experience its full content. This is all the more necessary because the work incorporates an extensive range of narrative imagery, a collage of mini snapshots of psychological states and lived events that inject social commentary into the work. He says, “My work engages the idea of recording selected aspects of contemporary society; creating spaces for mystery, speculation, and wonder.” Monterrubio creates scenes of his own stories while also describing the vivid street life of Los Angeles, California. His forms and images fuse a number of disparate subjects and styles; his own experiences, myths, legends, Catholic imagery, and Mexican murals; a range of the high and low. What he wants over and above all is to “bring something new and personal to the 10,000-year history of clay.”

1 Assimilation, 22 in. (56 cm) in length, porcelain, underglaze, 2009.

2 Juquila, 15½ in. (39 cm) in height, porcelain, underglaze, 2009.

Monterrubio’s work rides on his constant use of incongruous juxtaposition; savage satirical images coexist with those that illustrate a longing and nostalgia for lost innocence. His work makes use of art history, consumer culture, his personal environment, and scenarios of everyday life interspersed with sexy women, pop kitsch, and allusions to violence. Monterrubio interprets contemporary culture as an aggregate, something formed over time by exposure, improvisation, and adaptation—his work is a consummate example of Post-Modern appropriation and multiculturalism.

Brutal Male Tendency

Monterrubio emigrated to Los Angeles in 1989 at the age of 10; the imagery that has come to typify his work bears the mark of his memories and experiences as an Oaxacan immigrant. One of his deepest memories is of the yearly, multi-day walking pilgrimages his devout family made to the shrine of the Virgin of Juquila. As an adult, he came to see how these trips blended Pre-Columbian traditions with Catholic ritual. In his teens, Monterrubio became a graffiti artist; at the same time, he took an interest in prison art and tattoos. His passion for drawing on ceramics led him to earn a BFA from California State University, Long Beach in 2009, where he studied ceramics with Kristen Morgin and Tony Marsh. He earned an MFA from UCLA in 2013. During his time as a student, he became increasingly concerned with social commentary, particularly when he explored themes related to events he witnessed in the US and Mexico. He likens the gang violence he saw in Los Angeles and Oaxaca to a brutal male tendency he refers to as “toxic masculinity,” something he observed often while growing up in Los Angeles’ gang-dominated neighborhoods.

3 Hooked, 28 in. (71 cm) in height, porcelain, underglaze, 2015.

While these themes represent some of the underpinnings of his work, they have been significantly expanded and made more sophisticated by Monterrubio’s exposure to other artists and aesthetics. Artists that have influenced him include Hans Josephson, Francisco Goya, Marlene Dumas, Grayson Perry, Henry Darger, and Hieronymus Bosch. Mexico City’s timeless cycle of murals and paintings have also left their mark—he has paid particular attention to the way they blend high and low, mythical and historical events, and scenes of daily life. His own exposure to racism has led him to challenge notions of beauty that have excluded non-white people. His curiosity about the acceptance of death and the afterlife in Mexican culture has led him to study the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl, as well as Oaxacan myths, Mimbres burial ceramics, and the Zapotec style of Monte Alban. The dog imagery he uses pairs his own dogs with those that have their roots in Toltec, Aztec, Mayan, Zapotec, and Colima history; those indigenous people placed dog effigies in tombs to accompany and guard the soul in the afterlife.

Narrative Relationship

Monterrubio’s use of materials is as idiosyncratic as his imagery—in porcelain work, he often references iconic forms like lipsticks (Las Muchachas), skulls (Assimilation), teardrops (Sadgirl ), or cacti (Juquila). In these pieces, the handbuilt and precise forms have a direct relationship with his narrative. He uses an underglaze pencil to make his highly detailed renderings of symbols on the surfaces, as well as on figures and street scenes. He uses the stark white surface offered by porcelain to its utmost; it provides the best canvas for his use of color and also preserves the clarity of his line.

4 Heaven, 17 in. (43 cm) in length, porcelain, underglaze, 2009.

5 Torito, 24 in. (61 cm) in height, porcelain, underglaze, 2014.

With a couple of his recent pieces, he has prepared free-form objects by beating wet clay (porcelain or terra cotta) with pieces of wood and then hollowing out the clay interior. This treatment removes air pockets, compresses, and prepares the clay to prevent cracking while also making it textured and irregular. A reflection of the influence of Hans Josephson, these preliminary shapes often measure about two feet in height and suggest torsos, trees, or even urns. When dry, their ridged, bumpy surfaces become a territory for drawing. The irregularities and imperfections influence his choices for imagery so there is a constant interplay between the surfaces and his developing narrative. Using glazes and brushes as well as glaze pencils, he works on several pieces at once in ways that are colorful, freeform, and spontaneous. His paintings develop slowly; he often wipes out images as he paints.

His 2017 terra-cotta piece Lepto is a phantasmagoric tribute to his beloved dog Smiley who died unexpectedly in 2017 from the bacterial disease Leptospirosis. The imagery knits together multiple references to Pre-Columbian beliefs about dogs and the afterlife, with Catholic mourning rituals and processions. Among other images, there is a bicycle wheel and the figures of two dogs locked in play fight in front of a dog saint. As with much of Monterrubio’s work, he creates a compound that combines dead-pan humor with a serious, philosophical reflection on the big issues of life and death.

6 Lepto, 22½ in. (57 cm) in height, terra cotta, underglaze, overglaze, 2017.

7 Puño de Tierra, 21½ in. (55 cm) in height, porcelain, underglaze, 2016.

Monterrubio’s recent exhibition, “Mano-Made—New Expressions In Craft By Latino Artists” at Los Angeles’ Craft in America Center, demonstrated the range of his achievement as a sculptor. Technically, visually, and conceptually, Monterrubio’s work offers a range of notions regarding originality and cultural relativity. His work ambitiously balances three major elements: repurposed images from the art history of various eras and cultures; a constant switching between social, psychological, and emotional states; and a commitment to the ceramic medium. His reworking of multicultural forms and his exploration of such contrasting ideas as beauty and the grotesque, culture and nature, the sacred and the profane, ritual and accident, purity and contamination offer an authentic model of cultural pluralism.

the author Kay Whitney, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.

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