Editor's note: The following essay was published in The El Paso Museum of Art's catalog for the exhibition Gaspar Enriquez Metaphors of El Barrio, on view from January 26th to May 11th, 2014. The essay was published February 28, 2014 in Resource Library with permission of the author and The El Paso Museum of Art. The Museum also provided other texts and images accompanying the essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or other materials, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalog, please contact The El Paso Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


When Attitudes Become Art

by Christian J. Gerstheimer


When one first encounters the black-and-white, full-figure double portraits of Gaspar Enríquez's En la Esquina series (plates 31-35), it is as if one is meeting the persons depicted while walking down the street in bright midday sunlight. Immediately the viewer starts to scan details such as haircut, clothing, shoes, and pose, as well as any gestures that might signal a message. The conscious and unconscious reading of physiognomies, dress, and attitudes is a behavior that many learn as a survival technique in the urban setting.[1] Building such a lexicon of the crowd is something that Gaspar Enríquez did as a young man in El Paso's Segundo Barrio, and the desire to memorialize the life, signifiers, and attitudes of the barrio has inspired the artist throughout his career.

However, considering Enríquez's work in this way is only one of numerous layers of meaning found in the many artworks he has created for the last three decades. It has been said that "Enríquez's work has to do with much more than a narrow slice of an 'other' culture."[2] This essay attempts to uncover what that "much more" could be, and in doing so will explore a general overview of the artist's career.

Even in his early artworks Enríquez already stressed his heritage and identity and examined Mexican-American popular culture. Because Enríquez focuses on his cultural identity he consequently comments on the social situation of Mexican Americans in the last half of the twentieth century. This perspective clearly references the inequity of opportunities for economic advancement available to marginalized communities throughout the United States, which remains a heated topic today.

Identity politics aside, the many portraits of young adults and teenagers that Gaspar Enríquez paints serve primarily as visual memories of the neighborhood in which he grew up. Economically disadvantaged as a youth, Enríquez held part-time jobs in a grocery store and then a dime store to supplement the family income. Even though he drew extensively as a youth, he found little encouragement to pursue an artistic career, so that becoming a professional artist was not an option he considered. A rare connection to art was provided by the painter Mel Casas, who was Enríquez's neighbor in the projects of El Paso's Segundo Barrio. Enríquez was fortunate enough to receive rides with Casas to and from school, and on at least one occasion Casas allowed Enríquez to view some of his recent abstract paintings. Casas taught art at Jefferson High School from 1958 to 1961, but unfortunately for El Paso he relocated to San Antonio to teach full-time at San Antonio College. [3] Enríquez thereby lost a potential role model, a "real artist" courted away by more lucrative teaching opportunities.

After graduation from high school in 1961, Enríquez moved to California in search of better job opportunities. In the Los Angeles area he worked at various jobs as a laborer, eventually rising to the position of machinist at a United States military defense plant. While working full-time from 1964 to 1965 Enríquez also took classes at East Los Angeles Junior College. By 1966 the future artist was back in Texas working as a machinist at General Dynamics in Fort Worth, a post he held for two years until it became obvious to him that workers in such positions are expendable. He then decided to return to El Paso and pursue a teaching degree at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Considering his choice of art as his teaching specialty, Enríquez recalls, "During the time that I lived in Los Angeles I used to go to museums and galleries a lot plus the fact that I was always drawn to art."[4]

In 1971 Enríquez received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in metals from UTEP. That same year he started teaching art at Bowie High School, a position he would hold until 2003. Continually seeking input from the public about his art, Enríquez entered numerous group exhibitions during the 1970s and exhibited his work in such varied locations as the Huntington Beach Museum in California and the Philbrook Art Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. During the late 1970s Enríquez became acquainted with the artist Manuel Acosta (1921-1989), an El Paso art icon around whom many Mexican-American artists in the city circulated. [5] Acosta was also known as a highly generous artist who frequently hosted events at his downtown studio as fundraisers for local charities. As an inspiration for his students Enríquez regularly invited Acosta to be a guest speaker, and the elder artist subsequently became an important mentor for Enríquez.

The 1980s were an important decade for Gaspar Enríquez because of several personal accomplishments and significant changes that brought his career and artwork to a wider level of recognition. The first of these was in the year 1983 when Enríquez set his paintbrush aside and picked up the airbrush sprayer. The paintings La Linda of 1983 and Sonya of 1983-84 demonstrate this transition (plates 1 and 4). As Enríquez grew to master the airbrush technique over the next few years he began a series of paintings "depicting the many facets of my culture that are woven into a tapestry of rich traditions."[6] The first of these pictures look to the horse-riding culture of post-revolutionary Mexico, known as charrería. Two 1987 paintings from this series -- El Charro and Anna, Charra (plates 8 and 7) -- portray the traditional clothing of wide-brimmed sombrero and body-fitting suit in a detailed realistic style that references the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. Not long afterwards Enríquez began a related series that looked to the tradition of baile folklórico (folkloric dance). The paintings Proscrita and El Liston, both of 1989, look at different aspects of this highly popular tradition (plates 10 and 9). These two series, focusing on varying features of Mexican-American life in a contemporary context, show Enríquez probing his culture of the US-Mexico borderland in search of his artistic voice.

Meanwhile in 1985 Enríquez earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in metals from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Although the artist's metalworks are less well known than his portrait paintings, they form an important part of his oeuvre and were essential to his development. Through them he was able to emphasize the significance of his personal and cultural heritage. Consider, for example, Familia Album, created in 1985 (plate 5). This artwork, a repoussé (hammered metal) book-like object, includes photo-etched metal reproductions of childhood photographs of the artist with his mother and sisters as pages within a metal housing. With artworks such as this one from the La Familia series, Enríquez sought to show that his childhood experiences were similar in many ways to those of other Americans, regardless of ethnicity or class.

1985 was also the year that Enríquez became one of the founding members of the Juntos Art Association, a national artists' society for Chicano art.[7] The co-founding of Juntos brought him into contact with the El Paso sculptor and printmaker Luis Jiménez (1940-2006), whose work Enríquez already knew since the 1973 publication of Jacinto Quirarte's seminal book Mexican American Artists. Always ready to enrich his students' experiences by introducing them to successful artists, Enríquez visited Jiménez, occasionally at the neon-sign shop of Jiménez's father where Jiménez sometimes worked on his art, and invited him to talk to his classes. In the ensuing years Jiménez became "a great mentor as well as a good friend" to Enríquez.[8] Thus both Manuel Acosta and Luis Jiménez were significant early influences in the development of Enríquez's practice -- Acosta through his realist style, Jiménez because of his advocacy of social critique, and both men by virtue of their Mexican-American heritage.

During this busy decade Enríquez also began what would become an important part of his legacy -- his work as a creative consultant and guide in a number of youth mural projects in El Paso and surrounding communities. In the years 1985-86, 1988, and 1994 Enríquez completed several public art mural projects focusing on the intertwining relationships between history, religion, and politics in the Ciudad Juárez/El Paso borderland communities. Finally, in 1987, two years after Enríquez received his MFA degree, one of his metal artworks from the La Familia series was selected by Walter Hopps, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Menil Collection in Houston, as the Juror's Award in the Austin Contemporary Art Exhibition at the Laguna Gloria Art Museum. Already, a lifestyle attitude was evident in Enríquez's work and was being recognized and appreciated.

In the early 1990s Enríquez adopted an almost exclusively black-and-white palette for many of his portraits. The earliest of these paintings were individual portraits such as Erika la Cholita (1991), La Smiley (1992), and Tirando Tiempo (Doing Time) (1992) (plates 12, 15, and 16), but they soon evolved into life-sized, multi-figure groupings such as La Patsy, Los Homeboys y los quartos (1991), Generations of Attitudes (1992), and the 1995 mixed-media installation La Rosa Dolorosa de Mi Vida Loca (plates 13, 17, and 28). Speaking about these artworks and their minimal palette, the artist explains, "The future for them doesn't look that bright at the moment. But, sometimes the viewer does project them in color when they see them." [9]

The artist offered the following statement to describe the 1992 Generations of Attitudes from this ongoing series: "My dominant concern in this body of work is to reflect an experience and express a feeling, about a lifestyle and an attitude. A lifestyle I grew up in and an attitude necessary for survival in the barrio. This lifestyle and attitude has been in existence since my father's generation and will most likely be in existence for many generations more. As long as there are barrios, poverty, and oppression, inheritance of this phenomenon from generation to generation is inevitable." [10]

This seven-figure artwork, Generations of Attitudes, features two figures as representatives for each of three generations: El Pachuco and La Pachuca, of the 1940s and the mid-1950s; El Tirilón and La Tirilona, of the late '50s and '60s; and El Cholo and La Chola, from the '70s to the '80s. The seventh, lone figure was intended to represent a cholo of the present day.

Enríquez went even further in 1995 and integrated a two-dimensional black-and-white portrait of two teens into his installation La Rosa Dolorosa de Mi Vida Loca, in this case effectively juxtaposing the abstracted black-and-white quality of the cut-out figures with the vivid coloration, texture, and dimension of the altar's architecture behind the figures (plate 28).

The early 1990s marked a major milestone for Enríquez because in this period his work was included in the exhibition CARA: Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985, organized by the Wight Art Gallery of the University of California, Los Angeles. CARA traveled to several venues nationwide including the Denver Art Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, El Paso Museum of Art, and Bronx Museum of the Arts, and presented Chicano/a art as an under-recognized part of multi-cultural America. The Juntos Art Association played an important advocacy role in bringing CARA to El Paso, and Enríquez was one of only three El Paso artists included in the exhibition.[11] The recognition that Enríquez received as a CARA artist was a substantial boost for his career and did much to solidify his artistic direction. More generally, CARA was significant for bringing attention to all artists of Mexican-American heritage, and for introducing new concepts such as Dr. Tomás Ybarra-Frausto's rasquachismo, a Chicano artistic sensibility that Enríquez surely took to heart. [12]

A few years later, in 1997, Enríquez commenced a series of black-and-white, life-size, full-figure portraits of teenage couples titled Color Harmony en la Esquina (plates 31-32 and 34-35). The artist explains this series with the following statement:

These paintings are about bigotry and prejudice, and while there is that all over the world, in the barrio (neighborhood) we learn to adopt or dismiss these prejudices and to get along with each other (we take care of each other, we are a Familia).
The individuals depicted were my students and they were chosen because they were my students, they lived in the barrio. They knew each other and got along with each other.
They are black and white because they lived in a black and white world and have been given the title Color Harmony en la Esquina because hopefully their world will change and become a world with color and harmony, a world without bigotry and prejudice. But, that is just wishful thinking on my part.
La Esquina is the street corner we or most of us in the barrios would gravitate to, it was a meeting place, a place where color harmony existed. [13]

The assertive yet everyday presence of these teenage couples has a special effect on the viewer as noted at the beginning of this essay, and shows Enríquez moving his practice confidently into its own niche. Indeed, in 1999 the City of San Antonio honored Enríquez by commissioning the artist to recreate two pairs of the Harmony en la Esquina series at a height of almost twenty-five feet for permanent display inside the San Antonio Convention Center (plate 33). With this series, as with many of his other artworks, Enríquez represents and dignifies the under-recognized for an audience that may or may not willingly acknowledge them.

As he developed more and more contacts throughout the state, Enríquez was invited to participate in a variety of art projects and exhibitions. One of these was the Serie Print Project, organized by Sam Coronado of the Coronado Studio in Austin, Texas, as a workshop where underrepresented artists could collaborate and learn the serigraph technique. In 1997 and again in 2007 Enríquez was invited to be a resident artist of the Serie Project. At the Coronado Studio he produced two screenprints: Q-Vo-Way in 1998 and La Smiley, 15 Going on 30 in 2008 (plates 36 and 60). Ten years apart, these two prints evoke a similar attitude and aesthetic that are recognizably Enríquez, and combine the bravado, pathos, and style of borderland youth culture.

In the year 2000 the book Elegy on the Death of César Chávez by Rudolfo Anaya was published by Cinco Puntos Press of El Paso, Texas. Enríquez had been invited by Anaya to create twelve paintings as interpretations of his poem about Chávez's life. The book release was celebrated on 14 October 2000 at the Centro de los Trabajadores Agricolas Fronterizos (Center for Border Farm Workers) of El Paso with a reading by Anaya and the unveiling of Enríquez's paintings (plates 38-49). Of this series Enríquez said, "Mostly what I was trying to do was realize the influence and the aura that César Chávez has on people. I wanted to portray the sensitivity that came from the poem. It was a powerful poem and I wanted to project that power to an illustration."[14] For the majority of the paintings in this series Enríquez utilized a collage aesthetic that created new meanings from two or more related or unrelated photographs or graphic images.

Working in a similar spirit of tribute as in the Elegy on the Death of César Chávez series, Enríquez has commenced the De Puro Corazon series. Ongoing still, this series currently includes portraits of José Cisneros, Celia Alvarez Muñoz, Luis Jiménez, Rudy Anaya, John Valadez, César Martínez, Gloria Osuna Pérez, Benito Huerta, Suzi Davidoff, Anna Jaquez, Mauricio Olague, and Vincent Valdez. Enríquez explains this portrait group as follows:

This series of artist's portraitsacknowledges artists whose work and dedication to that work explore new boundaries in their quest for expression. These artists offer an intriguing mixture of styles, content, and themes that provoke questions and dialogue between the art and the viewer.
As we participated in the same exhibitions and I became acquainted with their lives and their passion for their work the character of their personalities become obvious. [15]

The De Puro Corazon portraits represent an important part of Enríquez's oeuvre and were the subject of a separate exhibition at the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso in the summer of 2014. To accompany the portraits of José Cisneros, Celia Alvarez Muñoz, Luis Jiménez, Gloria Osuna Pérez, and César Martínez, Enríquez also created a metal Corazon (heart), represented here by the 2003 portrait-and-heart pair dedicated to Luis Jiménez: Luis Jiménez and El Corazon de Luis (plates 53-54). This group of artworks arguably exemplifies the complete unification of Enríquez's mutually complementary talents in painting and metalwork with his compassion for his artist colleagues and his attention to his cultural identity and attitude.

A second major milestone in Enríquez's career was reached in the year 2003 when his work was included in the traveling exhibition Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge. From the focused collection of the esteemed actor and director Cheech Marin, this exhibition was one of the most successful shows in the history of the El Paso Museum of Art and signified that Chicano art and Gaspar Enríquez were entering the mainstream of the art world. As the exhibition traveled, an artist from each hosting city was commissioned to paint a mural to be included as part of the exhibition in that city. As the only representative from El Paso, Enríquez led a group of his Bowie High School students to complete a six-by-twelve-foot mural featuring Chicanos past and present unified within the form of the United Farm Workers of America's black Aztec eagle (plate 55). It was in this year that Enríquez decided to conclude his teaching career in order to focus on his artwork and the restoration of his historic adobe building into studio spaces in the four-hundred-year-old presidio of San Elizario in El Paso's Mission Valley.

In the ten years since his retirement from teaching Enríquez has continued to develop portraits using varying amounts of color. A short list from this series includes: La Becky in Purple (1993), Shine on mijita, Shine on (1994), La Patsy II (1994), Ojos de Miel (1995), Beginning of an Attitude #2 (1996), Q-Vo-Way (1998), La Smiley, 15 Going on 30 (2008), and La Gabby in Red (2012) (plates 18, 23, 21, 25, 30, 36, 60, and 65). Concerning the use of color in these paintings Enríquez has commented, "It has several meanings: first there is hope for them, second there is that passion for survival, and third it gives the image a three dimensional look and makes the figures project out to the viewer."[16] This group of paintings shows a progression of stylistic development that reflects the artist's growth, and helps us to understand his work within the tradition of American realist portraiture moving from Thomas Eakins to Grant Wood, Andrew Wyeth, and ultimately the Pop artist Mel Ramos. In terms of artistic agenda and style, however, a closer comparison to Enríquez would be the contemporary African-American realist painter Barkley Hendricks (born 1945).

Since 2003 Enríquez has also resumed portraying individuals with tattoos, a tendency that generally parallels the acceptance and frequency of this historic art of personal adornment within the United States. As early as 1989 in paintings such as Luis y la Virgen de Guadalupe, followed by Tirando Tiempo (Doing Time) of 1992 and Maria de los Angeles y los angelitos negros of 1994 (plates 11, 16, and 19), and again later in the 2006 paintings Mi Querida Madre and Un Veterano chingon en la esquina (plates 59 and 58), Enríquez depicted individuals decorated with this popular form of body art, reiterating to viewers the importance of forming their own opinions. Concerning more recent paintings such as Diana y Quetzalcoatl and Carrying the Past Forward, both of 2009 (plates 61-62), the artist has remarked, "These paintings have more to do with the tattoos than the identity of the women," acknowledging that the human canvas is yet another platform from which artists may speak. [17]

Inside and outside the barrio there are many ways for an artist to represent another person, but to do so with clarity of intention as part of a decades-long civil rights struggle is to have patience and perseverance. That is what Gaspar Enríquez has done. Together his art and his teaching testify to the artist's commitment to an artistic practice that is a dichotomy of tradition and innovation.

In addition, as this essay has outlined, Enríquez's artwork subtly examines and critiques a specific slice of the binational, bilingual culture existing in the Ciudad Juarez/El Paso borderland; and beyond this, the longstanding strength and character of his art are based on an attitude that melds a rasquache sensibility with evolving universal concerns.

Integrating the iconography of youth culture and Catholic and pre-Columbian religions simultaneously, Enríquez's artwork stands as a definitive part of late twentieth and early twenty-first-century American realist portrait painting, and significantly asks viewers to look twice before making assumptions. Furthermore, it highlights in a special manner what George Vargas has stated more generally with regard to Chicano art, in the 2010 book Contemporary Chicano Art: "Increasingly, Chicano art is as much about other Americans as it is about Chicano people."[18] As Gaspar Enríquez endeavors to raise awareness about the US-Mexico borderland experience, his portraits convey both his versatility of practice and his strong personal connection and commitment to those he depicts. Enríquez has led the life of an artist for more than thirty years in a city that does not have a robust art market. Enríquez has endured and thrived in El Paso because of the area's rich cultural heritage and unique binational community, and because of Enríquez's evolving attitude and socially engaging art.


1 See Rahdika Subramaniam, "Urban Physiognomies," Sarai Reader 2002: The Cities of Everyday Life (New Delhi: Sarai: The New Media Initiative; Amsterdam: SONM, 2002), p. 10.

2 Janet Tyson, Gaspar Enríquez and Joseph Havel (Arlington, Texas: The Gallery at UTA, 2007), p. 1.

3 http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-mel-casas-5449.

4 E-mail correspondence with the artist, 5 November 2013. In 1965 Enríquez's wife "Annie," whom he had married the year before, gave him his first paint set and encouraged him as an artist.

5 On 4 July 1969 Acosta's painting of César Chávez appeared on the cover of Time magazine. This recognition made Acosta stand out nationally as an El Paso artist.

6 E-mail correspondence with the artist, 30 September 2013.

7 Enríquez later served as the President of the Juntos Art Association for many years and remains an active member to this day.

8 E-mail correspondence with the artist, 19 August 2013.

9 E-mail correspondence with the artist, 4 November 2013.

10 From a 1993 statement by Enríquez located in the artists' files of the El Paso Museum of Art.

11 Although Luis Jiménez is considered by many to be an El Paso artist, by this time he was living and working in Hondo, New Mexico.

12 Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, "Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility," in CARA: Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985 (Los Angeles: Wight Art Gallery, University of California, 1991), p. 155.

14 Michael Hernandez, "Artist Gaspar Enríquez Illustrates New Book about Chavez," El Paso Times Living (8 October 2000), sec. F, pp. 1, 10.

15 From the artist's statement included in the 2004 Enríquez exhibition, De Puro Corazon, presented at the Art Windows of El Paso in the El Paso International Airport.

16 E-mail correspondence with the artist, 4 November 2013.

17 E-mail correspondence with the artist, 31 October 2013.

18 George Vargas, Contemporary Chicano Art: Color and Culture for a New America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), p. 248.


About the author

Christian J. Gerstheimer is Curator at The El Paso Museum of Art. The above essay "When Attitudes Become Art" was published in The El Paso Museum of Art's exhibition catalog for the exhibition Gaspar Enriquez Metaphors of El Barrio on view from January 26th to May 11th, 2014. The exhibition introduction was also written by Christian Gerstheimer, the exhibition's curator.

Images of artworks from the exhibition Gaspar Enriquez Metaphors of El Barrio


(above: Gaspar Enriquez, Shine on Mijita, Shine on, 1994, Airbrushed acrylic on paper, Pintado con aerógrafo, acrílico sobre papel. Collection of the Artist)



(above: Gaspar Enriquez, Color Harmony en la Esquina - 2, 1997, Airbrushed acrylic on foamboard, Pintado con aerógrafo, acrílico sobre cartón pluma. Collection of the Artist)



(above: Gaspar Enriquez, Elegy on the Death of César Chávez, "this man who was a guide across fields of toil", 2000, Airbrushed acrylic on paper, Pintado con aerógrafo, acrílico sobre papel. El Paso Museum of Art, Purchase with Funds Provided by the Robert U. and Mabel O. Lipscomb Foundation 2002.20.2)



(above: Gaspar Enriquez, Untitled Mural / Mural sin título, 2003, Airbrushed acrylic on canvas, Pintado con aerógrafo, acrílico sobre lienzo. El Paso Museum of Art, Gift of Target Corporation 2003.18.a-b)


Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published February 28, 2014 in Resource Library with permission of the author and The El Paso Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on February 28, 2014. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Dr. Michael Tomor of The El Paso Museum of Art for his help concerning publishing the essay.

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