Roberto Gutiérrez: Vietnam Veteran, Chicano Artist Capturing the Colors of Life

His life’s journey –- walking through the bloodied soils of Vietnam, through the halls of East Los Angeles College, up and down the marbled floors of the finest museums in Europe, and retracing the steps of his artistic heroes in Montmartre, France — all have influenced him to become the renown painter he is today: incapsulating landmarks, streets… everyday people, capturing imagery of colors and shapes that transition from realism to impressionism to abstract.

Roberto Gutiérrez left Los Angeles in 1961 as a naïve 17-year old figuring the U.S. Marines was a great way to escape his difficult childhood. And, he guessed, it was a way to get an education and improve his future potential — at what? Well, here he was clueless.

 He returned in 1966 as Lance Cpl. Robert “Bob” Gutiérrez, U.S. Marine Corps, having served and survived the horrors of Vietnam without ever discovering what he would do for the rest of his life. Thankfully, Gutiérrez did eventually find his life calling. Today, Chicano Studies scholars rate him as one of the most important Chicano artists to come out of the Los Angeles 1970s’ boom.

 Gutiérrez, now 73, is the first to admit that he is an emotional painter. It could be a traumatic childhood or Vietnam memory that might dictate if he uses thick black paint with wide abstract strokes, like the ones he used for his recent 6th Street Bridge collection.

The bold black represents the great sadness that this iconic L.A. landmark that connected the east to west has a date with a wrecking ball.

“This bridge was a big deal back when Los Angeles was a younger city,” recalled Gutiérrez. He walked across it dozens of times from childhood to the present. “Witnessing the bridge as a newbie to now seeing it’s demise, breaks my heart.

“This collection represents the metaphor for life … you’re born, you go through life and then you die … that’s how this collection’s images came to life.”

 There are also paintings that represent more playful emotions, street scenes filled with color and images of his gente (people), living mundane days with unshakable faith and hope—images associated with a Latino community. Gutiérrez’s work has evolved from looking more like photographs to instead challenging his imagination by capturing the strong feelings rather than the literal image.

And then there is his breathtaking 2013 Paris collection. If his L.A. images seize the positive of our neighborhoods and landscapes, his Paris collection morphs the spirits of painters: figurative impressionist Édouard Manet, post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh, landscape impressionist Claude Monet and expressionist Chaim Soutine.

“Paris does something to me,” Gutiérrez said. “When I see a particular sight in Paris, I just run with it. I run with my feelings.

“One painting may look like an impressionist painting and another one may impress me differently and remind me of Soutine, whose paintings depending on his mood may look a little like he might have been on acid when he painted it.” He laughed.

“I just go with it. Paris brought out the best of my figurative impressionist paintings. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve evolved more into abstract images.”

This December, he returns to Paris because he left part of his heart there and never really ever got it back.

“I believe my new European collection will be more abstract, but we’ll see what comes out of me,” Gutiérrez said. “I may start it one way but the ultimate result is unknown to me until I’m done. That’s what painting with your emotions does to you. I’m very excited to be returning to Paris.”

Eating at one of his favorite Italian restaurants recently, he was asked if he had retired. “There is no such thing as retirement for poor people,” he chuckled with the same youthful sparkle in his eyes. No retirement. Gutiérrez continues to paint and teach a mixed-media art class at Plaza de La Raza in Lincoln Heights.

Gutiérrez is currently also part of the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) new exhibition “Somewhere Over El Arco Iris: Chicano Landscapes, 1971 to 2015,” which runs through Nov. 15 in Long Beach. MOLAA is open Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m to 5 p.m.; Friday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is free only on Sunday. For more information, visit: http://www.molaa.org/Exhibitions/Exhibitions/Somewhere-Over-El-Arco-Iris-Chicano-Landscapes–1971—2015.aspx.

This Veterans Day, Lance Cpl. Robert “Bob” Gutiérrez will pay tribute to several memorial ceremonies throughout the city of Los Angeles. But he will never, ever discuss his Vietnam experience — these emotions are revealed only in his paintings. Yet you know it is important because the few hanging photos in his home are of his buddies, many whom never made it back.

For more on this painter’s life and art, visit: http://www.thechicanocollection.net/artists/rogu/index.html.

Elia Esparza a writer living in Los Angeles

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