Honoring a Native Son

TMA's David Tineo retrospective proves the renowned artist is far more than a mere muralist

Way back in 1992, a giant traveling show of Chicano art alighted at the Tucson Museum of Art.

Organized by the Wight Art Gallery at UCLA, CARA: Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation gave a seal of approval to what had been a subversive art form. Until then, Chicano art had mostly flourished on walls in the poor parts of Southwestern American cities. Young artists galvanized by the Chicano political movement had reclaimed a mythology of Mexicanidad, and they painted Aztec gods and goddesses, eagles and cornstalks and blazing bleeding hearts in their hardscrabble barrios.

Tucson had its own share of murals, many of them painted by native son David Tineo. Border-born in Douglas and raised in Tucson's Barrio Anita alongside the railroad tracks, Tineo started painting on the walls of the city's community centers and housing projects in his early 20s. In 1976, he created a painting for El Rio Neighborhood Center; in 1979, for El Pueblo Neighborhood Center. By the time the CARA show came to Tucson, he had made a couple dozen, by himself and in collaboration with other artists and with groups of teens.

The museum commissioned Tineo and another prominent Tucson muralist, Antonio Pazos, to paint a mural on the museum's plaza wall. It was a big step for the pair to get a commission at a museum, and to get such a huge and prominent space.

The two artists divided the 60-foot wall in two. Pazos painted his vision of the future on the left side. Tineo took the right for his depiction of Mexican-American roots, "Nuestras raices humanas."

Tineo's epic painting is a panorama of Mexican myth and history, inspired by the great Mexican muralists of the early 20th century, like Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Organized around a human sacrifice at the center, with the victim hanging upside down, the work incorporates most of the elements of the classic Chicano mural: earth, death, blood, redemption. The hero Cuauhtémoc, last ruler of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, is clothed in eagle feathers; he wrestles with a serpent, trying to save his people from the Spanish conquest. The suffering people are engulfed in flames. Cactus plants stand in for the earth, and a heart floats above all.

The painting was such a success that the museum decided to keep it in place even after CARA departed, and for the last 18 years, it's given the museum a Chicano face.

With this spring's retrospective, ¡Viva David Tineo!, the artist's work came inside.

Gathering together 34 years of work, the show corrects the impression that Tineo is exclusively, or even primarily, a muralist. Curated by the museum's Fatima M. Bercht, the 60 works in the show are mostly easel paintings. Some striking drawings and other graphic works are also included. One of the finest pieces is the large study for the museum's outdoor mural; rendered in graphite and crayon on paper, with dramatic passages of dark against light, it demonstrates Tineo's considerable gifts as a draftsman.

The artist's paintings are pungently colored, filled with dazzling arrays of sun-splashed orange and yellow, and figures bounded by thick black outlines. He favors the classic Mexican themes worked by both Rivera and Kahlo—the heroic earth mother, say, or the fertile earth. The landscape around Douglas might be part of the inspiration for his "Agave, Flowering," a 1996 acrylic on canvas. The pointy-leafed plant is front and center, spreading its spikes across an endless array of mountains. The peaks may be part of the Sierra Madre, receding into the distance south of the border.

"Corn Princess y las doñas de la vida (Corn Princess and the Gifts of Life)," an acrylic on canvas from 2005, portrays a mythical woman. She stands in a field blessed with an abundance of corn, one of the trinity of foodstuffs that have fed Mexico since time immemorial (along with beans and squash). Dozens of golden corn cobs radiate out from her head like a Christian halo.

The early works especially connect directly to traditional Mexican folk art. Painted on unprimed burlap, they feature naively rendered chiles and olla pots; one has a veiled woman carrying a watermelon on her head. The paint sinks into the cloth, heightening the impression of long-ago times.

Interestingly, though Tineo has lived in a city most of his life, very little of his work is urban-themed. Some Chicano artists, including the late Tucson photographer Louis Carlos Bernal, depicted Mexican Americans in their urban habitats, tattooed, say, or driving heavily decorated low-riders through the barrio. The CARA show exhibited plenty of artists working that vein, but also their opposite number: artists like Tineo, who intended to energize an underdog minority with a vision of a glorious Aztec past.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a perennial in both groups. Fusing an indigenous goddess with the Christian Mary, she's a handy—and beloved—symbol of the dual heritage of Mexico. Bernal famously depicted her in a photo of an elaborate tattoo on some vato's back; Tineo paints her more traditionally, in "Virgin de las Palmas," a 2008 acrylic on canvas that colorfully places her in the midst of bright-green palm fronds.

Tineo sometimes combines modern figures with traditional icons. "Zapata, Soldadera Holding Child, Jaguar Warrior," 2007, re-imagines heroes of the Mexican Revolution, posed across in a straight line three across. The hero Zapata is at center, bullets crisscrossed across his chest. He's flanked by a young mother—a steely-eyed soldier who holds a swaddling baby in her arms—and a traditional warrior in jaguar mask and feathers, who draws on the ancient Aztec heritage for strength. The three gaze outward, unafraid.

Tineo is charmed by the colorful masks that Mexico's indigenous people use in transformational rituals. In "Jaguar Warrior (Chiapas)," 1996, the orange animal mask dominates in a tight close-up portrait; human eyes peer out through the mask's mouth. "Yaqui Dancer With Deer Headdress," an early example circa 1986, is beautifully drawn, its heavy outlines black against the rolling orange hills of the background.

A playful series of Day of the Dead skeletons links Tineo to his native borderlands. A group of uncharacteristically gray paintings honoring Frida Kahlo—he paints himself marrying her in "Unidos para siempre (United Forever)"—signals his allegiance to her inventive use of traditional iconography.

Now 55, Tineo has contributed mightily to Tucson. He taught at Pima for years, worked on art projects with countless youth groups, and joined the Latino co-op gallery Raices Taller 222 early on. About six years ago, though, the artist began to lose his eyesight to macular degeneration.

One can hardly imagine the devastation that near-blindness wreaked on the artist, psychologically, economically and in every other way. Even so, he's continued to paint, using the limited vision he still has. Some of the recent works, miraculously, are among his most beautiful.

His changed vision pushed him into a new aesthetic that's a little blurrier, a little dreamier; the colors are lighter and more radiant; the imagery is less explicit. "Las tres mujeres jaguares (The Three Jaguar-Woman)," circa 2006, is rendered in the simplest of lines and mere suggestions of form. The women's shattered figures, remarkably, suggest Matisse.

"Lovers in the Prelude of a Hummingbird," 2006, a canvas 5 feet high by 10 feet wide, is a roiling mix of plant forms in pale yellow and green, and faces that look like crescent moons.

Angels and faces float across the luminous "Angelic Retribution," also from 2006. Tineo here has abandoned his trademark black lines, trading them in for color—and his pure golds and coppers gleam as though lit from within.