In her late 1980s text “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” Ursula K. Le Guin writes about the importance of the “container” as one of the “earliest cultural inventions” in early human history. She then discusses the novel as a container, linking it to her approach to science fiction writing. “That’s why I like novels: instead of heroes, they have people,” she writes.
When the science fiction author published her writing on the subject of containers, the artist Elmer Guevara had not yet been born. But decades later, the artist, who was born and raised in South Los Angeles, came across her writings and wove them into his complex paintings about childhood, family and the city. Containers, literal or not, represent family history and relationships in Guevara’s exhibition “house money” currently on view at the Charlie James Gallery. The exhibition features paintings, mixed media works and drawings depicting Guevara and his family against the backdrop of the interior and exterior landscape of his home.
Guevara captures everyday, meaningful moments in his life, drawing on his upbringing and his family’s personal history. Guevara’s parents left El Salvador in the 1980s and started a new life in Los Angeles. “House Money” follows his journey as a child growing up in South Los Angeles in the 1990s and as an adult dealing with generational trauma and complicated family dynamics.
In the compositions you can find many literal containers that are often used to store valuables. A piece titled “Young Grasshopper” features a young Guevara listening to a Walkman while an airship hovers above him in the distance. One hand carries a basketball while the other holds a box of prized possessions: money, a Game Boy, and Spider-Man playing cards.
Guevara remembers that as a child she had neighbors who often drew characters like “Dragon Ball Z” and “Beavis and Butt-Head.” As a teenager, he attended Manual Arts High School and explored LA by skateboard and bus. He remembers the first time he took the 33 to the beach and got off at the Venice Beach stop. He often went on bike rides with friends to look for graffiti spots.
At East Los Angeles College, Guevara took various courses for two years before an advisor advised him that he had enough credits to major in art. “That’s when I thought, ‘Okay, cool, this is what I like to do,'” Guevara said. “And it takes a lot of hard work, but I just thought, ‘I’m willing to work on it and just see how far it goes.'”
After Guevara earned his BFA from Cal State Long Beach, he took a year and a half off. He later moved to New York in 2019 to pursue his MFA at Hunter College. Moving from Los Angeles to New York was “a big culture shock,” especially because he arrived in the winter.
At the time, Guevara was creating pieces that seemed familiar to Angelenos but less familiar to the students in his cohort, who came from all over the world. He often referred to the helicopters constantly flying over South LA, a sight that New Yorkers are not as familiar with; Some of his portraits included bus stop signs for local routes that Angelenos might recognize but others might gloss over. His color palette also appeared to be “very saturated” in contrast to the colors of the East Coast, a nod to his studies of the work of Bay Area Figurative Movement artists.
His 2021 solo exhibition at the residency gallery “Mi Orgullo” features works he created for the first time outside of his home, many of them with his mother. “House Money” is mostly about himself, his father and his brother; Guevara uses motifs like a subtle line in “Young Grasshopper” that includes the year 1995, a reference to household growth charts that track children’s heights over the years.
“House Money” also captures a clear tension between the “violence of the ’90s and early 2000s” and the “very joyful times” he experienced in his apartment complex, where cousins often lived, and the surrounding area .
“I didn’t know anything outside of South Central for a while until I got older and realized that the west side of L.A. was different or Beverly Hills was different than where I came from,” Guevara said. “So I had to leave my neighborhood to realize that there really is a difference.”
Many of the works in the exhibition are photographs transferred onto the skin of the figures. Using gel transfers, Guevara places childhood photos and images of El Salvador’s civil war on the characters’ skin, alluding to a trauma that is passed down from generation to generation, even if it is not spoken out loud. Guevara calls the gel transfers a “ghostly material.”
“I love the challenge of portraying something that is so psychological – that you can’t see,” Guevara said. “I give people access. Like, ‘Oh, look, these are the memories I had in my body.’ You can see them if you look closely and investigate.'”
Artist Eduardo Gómez also attended Cal State Long Beach and identifies with Guevara’s subject matter and approach, especially as someone who also grew up in Southern California in a Latinx household. They met at Gómez’s solo exhibition Eastern Projects in 2021 “One dodger a day.” Guevara was later included in the first group exhibition at Altura, an artist-run space that Gómez helped create in Lincoln Heights; Gómez says these are the largest pieces the artist has ever seen.
Both the gel transfers and the subtle motifs in the background of each composition “move your eye,” Gómez said, urging you to slow down and take it all in.
“They almost have this washed-out look,” Gómez continued. “They are very weak and subtle. So you really have to pay attention and look closely to see these images and get the references. And I like the way he does it because he makes you look really tough instead of just saying it to your face.”
Ever Velasquez, gallery director at Charlie James Gallery, first saw Guevara’s work about six years ago and was immediately drawn to it. She describes Guevara as “a meticulous note-taker” who “wants to be precise in every composition.” In “House Money,” Guevara’s use of textures and colors and the artist’s willingness to delve deeply into family history are important parts of the show, Velasquez said.
“When it comes to male artists in Los Angeles specifically, they all make work about their neighborhood, but not necessarily intimate images of the people in their family,” Velasquez said. “He in particular goes into detail about his family and shows you who they are and what kind of environment they live in.”
Last March, Guevara spent time at the Prado Museum in Madrid and saw works by old masters such as Diego Velázquez, which inspired him to create works on a larger scale than his previous works. Works like “Security Is Under the Mattress” are reminiscent of the use of dramatic poses in classic paintings. Inside, Guevara’s father sleeps peacefully, his body draped over a colorful hammock, one arm stretched toward the floor. It is framed by a large window that shows the neighborhood in the background; There are drawings on the windows that look as if they were made by someone running their finger over dust or condensation.
Lately, Guevara has been reading memoirs, including “Solito” by Javier Zamora, a heartbreaking story about the author’s migration journey as a young boy who came to the United States alone from El Salvador. Mike Davis’ oft-quoted “City of Quartz” and the documentary “LA 92” are also sources he draws on when creating new works. He says his parents continue to support his work.
“Because of their trip here, I have the opportunity to make this stuff,” Guevara said. “Or they give me the chance, basically win the chance for me so I can have a future. For me it is a homage to paint them. I keep it simple, but I paint the people I really care about and love and appreciate.”
Where: Charlie James Gallery, 961 Chung King Road, Chinatown
When: Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and by appointment. Closes September 16th.
The information: (213) 687-0844, cjamesgallery.com