Object Lesson: What Elsa Flores’ painting of Carlos Almaraz reveals about a marriage of artists
It is a small work, rather mystical: a faceless human figure, his head surrounded by an aura, appears to rise off of a couch. Whether it’s to simply stand up, or an otherworldly act of levitation, it’s hard to tell.
“Urban Shaman, Portrait of Carlos” was created in 1984 by artist Elsa Flores. It is a painted photograph that depicts her late husband, Carlos Almaraz, the Los Angeles artist best known for his canvases of explosive car crashes. In fact, he is the subject of a survey that is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of the Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA series of exhibitions.
Flores’ painting, which is on view through Saturday at Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica, provides a more intimate view of Almaraz’s life. It is part of the exhibition “Domestic,” which pairs works by the couple from the decade-long period that they were together until Almaraz died of AIDS-related complications in 1989.
The show examines the artistic dialogue that occurred between the pair, who often worked side by side. This includes several portraits they painted of each other — including the electric “Urban Shaman.”
“Carlos did have these magical powers,” Flores says via telephone from Hawaii, where she lives. “He could produce images that conjured something. He spun a lot of magic. I wanted to portray him as this being with these magical powers.”
The pair, both raised on the Eastside of Los Angeles, met through Chicano activist circles and married in 1981. They ended up sharing a live-in studio in downtown Los Angeles, where Flores often captured their life on film.
“I had been a fine art photographer in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” she explains. “And we were just naked all the time and I was always clicking shots.”
In the 1980s, Flores began painting on photographs as a regular part of her artistic practice. One day, looking for pictures to paint, she stumbled upon the image she had once snapped of a nude Almaraz rising from the couch.
“It was in this junk drawer, full of photos and I pulled this one out,” she says. “I like using auras — creating these energetic bodies.”
That photo became the basis of “Urban Shaman.”
“Domestic” is a small show, but, in many ways, a revealing one. It examines overlaps between the two artists, including the expressive manner in which they approached human figures and the ways in which they employed color and iconography.
“He taught me about color,” says Flores. “What he learned from me was surface. I was very much about paint and I would pile it on.”
But the show also lays bare complicated questions of gender in a relationship between artists. Almaraz was 14 years older than Flores when they got together, and much better known.
When Almaraz grew ill with AIDS, it was Flores who nursed him. And after his death, she managed his archive.
“I had to be a single mother to Maya,” their daughter, she says. “And he had asked me to take care of the estate. I was so devoted to him and his legacy. I didn’t want him to be forgotten.
“But I had no time to create.”
With the Almaraz survey at LACMA behind her, as well as the publication of a catalog of his work, Flores says she is now focusing on her own creative pursuits.
“Now I feel like, ‘I’ve done this, it’s my turn,’” she says.
“Domestic” is a way to begin to tell her own story.
Carlos Almaraz and Elsa Flores: “Domestic”
Where: Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., B-3, Santa Monica
When: Through Saturday; an artist’s reception will be held Saturday from 3-5 p.m.
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