For several years Cesar Ivan’s series of three paintings--“El Carnaval Social,” “El Hombre Fuerte” and “Mujer de Dos Cebezas,” what he calls “sideshow banners”--hung on the walls of the Lumenbrite (now the Percolator) Café on Stanton Street in downtown El Paso. I loved those paintings from the first time I saw them. They were haunting in their wrinkled medieval ambiance with an odd sense of prophesy and cultural comment. Like allegory even. So un-20th Century. But still so peculiarly contemporary and hip. When art and poet friends from out of town came to visit us, I’d send them first to see Cesar’s paintings, then I’d tell them to walk by to see Luis Jimenez’ “Los Lagartos” in the Plazita and then go to the museum. They would always come back talking about Cesar’s work, especially El Carnaval Social. But for those of us who were involved in the downtown cultural life of the 90s and the first few years of this century, the paintings had an added dimension--the people in the paintings were people we know! I for one wanted to have the names of everybody in those paintings. So I started talking to Cesar.
I’ve known Cesar Ivan since the 1990s. He was a regular at the Bridge Center Café for Contemporary Arts on San Antonio Avenue. That was the heyday of that particular incarnation of the Bridge Center. Architect Fred Dalbin was President of the Board and he kept the thing afloat by practicing magic tricks; a romantic and even idealistic David Romo (before the shit hit his fan) was its improvisational and rarely-paid director; and sweetness herself, the red-headed and freckled Maggie Herrera was La Barrista of the espresso machine. Characters came in and out of the Bridge. Every one connected to the Bridge Center had visions of what Downtown El Paso could become and the Bridge Center was to be at least one of the seeds from which those visions sprouted. I happily watched and participated. It was a dreamy passionate time.
Cesar Ivan, never an artist who hung out with the university crowd, was at home downtown. He enjoyed mixing with the menagerie of artists, musicians, street performers, grassroots capitalists, everyday street people and the regular folk that make up the downtown scene. He had grown up in the Lower Valley of El Paso (he graduated from Ysleta High School) dreaming about the circus and about traveling carnivals. Like so many kids, especially kids who become artists, the different and the weird attracted him--the freaks and the clowns and the barkers and the high wire trapeze artists. Blinking pink neon lights. Tinny make-believe organ music. The merry-go-round and the Ferris wheel. In junior high school he and a friend decided school was not for them. They decided to run away to join the circus. They were going to catch the freight train going east or west, they didn’t care which way. Surely they’d be able to find a circus or a carnival. All their lives they had watched the hobos jumping the freight train as it slowed down lumbering through Ysleta. So Cesar and his buddy sat there in a park waiting for a train. They waited and waited until they fell asleep waiting, and the next morning the sun woke them up. They went back home. They were hungry. Cesar Ivan never joined the circus. He became an artist instead and moved into downtown El Paso.
Downtown he began cobbling together a living from his art, his music (he plays electric base—back then with Fronteras No Más and now with Sangre Gitana), making funky calaca puppets and cutouts of Frida, welding steel furniture and hiring out his multiple talents for a number of projects. Then the Bridge Center went belly-up when Dalbin got tired and packed up his magic show, leaving behind him a wired-together contraption with a board that soon became dysfunctional trying to reshape it into something it would never be. Downtown was not happening like we had all hoped. 9/11 had slapped the country up aside the head, the federal government began its ponderous Kafkian business of nailing the border shut forever and the great Art Lewis packed up his saxophone and went home to Houston to be close to his dying mother.
Shit, I said.
Ni modo, that’s life, Cesar Ivan mumbled. He always mumbles. You need to listen close.
He was now settled into the seventh floor of the Abdou Building on Mesa and Texas (a Trost Building, no parallel sides, almost a hundred years old), a perfect fit for Sr. Ivan, his studio and his home. He was wandering the streets with his camera and meeting the street people. He became their friend. He remembered the circus and the sideshow banners. He he started painting his Sideshow Banners. His style was puro Cesar Ivan. Old-fashioned painterly darkness. And he would make of the people wandering through downtown an allegory.
The sideshow banner was his model, his archetype. And he made three paintings. In the forefront of each are characters become allegory. In first two the primary characters are men off the streets, and in the third is a two-headed lady. But unlike sideshow banners the primary figures are surrounded by an audience of recognizable downtowners.
"We are all performers on the stage," Cesar Ivan says. That is his dictum.
The paintings are very reminiscent of Diego Rivera’s "Sueno de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central" (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park). In the center are the artist Posada arm and arm with La Calavera Catrina, the Great Mother of Death, Frida is there and likewise Diego himself as a little boy. And they are surrounded by with prominent figures from Mexican history.
The series of three paintings hung in the Lumenbrite for years. Nobody was buying them, and Cesar needed to make a living. He went on to other things. I’ll say it again: the El Paso Museum of Art should find an angel to buy these important paintings for their collection. Cesar needs the support, we need the paintings.
This, the first painting in the series, appears to be the core of Cesar’s dream. It documents and celebrates one of the unending drumming sessions that sprang up around downtown in those days, many times incited at the Bridge and then spilling out into the streets. At the center of the action, is “Ron the Dreamer” (sometimes called “Ron the Dancer”) and Natalie “the French Gypsy”—the Yang and the Yin of the street life in downtown El Paso.
“Quit your jobs and go live in the woods.” This was Ron the Dreamer's dictum.
Ron was a homeless citizen but in Cesar’s painting he is a prophet holding a flare to light the drummers and the dance. Around them all Cesar paints night thickly into the canvas. Cesar had met Ron on the streets and in his quiet way he would nod at him and say hello. After a while Ron would return the greeting and the two became friends even though Ron worried that Cesar was a communist spy. Ron was always worried about the communists infiltrating into his downtown space. And he was a street artist, a minimalist who would leave little paper constructions dangling from trees for people to find. Like messages to the hungry ghosts. Cesar, of course, went looking for the little pieces of sculpture. Rumor had it that Ron had once been a teacher but that he had lost a son in a fire and so he disappeared into the street life. Last time Cesar saw him he was in the Opportunity Center on Myrtle Street. He had gained weight and he looked well.
The yin to Ron’s yang was Natalie, aka “the French Gypsy” She was a French citizen who wandered into the Bridge somehow and somewhere in the 90s. She loved to dance and she would dance at the drop of a hat—dancing with men, with women or most often just alone, feeling the music. She had an aura about her, a charisma that inspired the young people around her. Cesar says you could always find Natalie dancing somewhere downtown, if not at the Bridge, then in the dives. Some people thought she was just crazy. She told Cesar that she was the daughter of Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dadaism. That made sense to him. Then one day she went over to Juárez and on the way home she was stopped by Customs. Her visa had expired and she was soon afterwards deported. Cesar said he heard that she was now in India.
Now I’m going to the list the others in the painting, and I will do the same for the other two. Forgive the scant information. Cesar told me bits and pieces about them, but he didn’t know last names and he’d forgotten relevant information. If you want to add anything, please send along comments for this blog. Importantly for Cesar Ivan they were all regulars at the drumming sessions. They are, from left to right:
(My thanks to Cesar for labeling all of the 20 characters. It was a mess trying to get them all straight.)
Most easily visible on the left (and in real life) is red-headed Maggie Herrera, already mentioned above. She was one of the cornerstones of the Bridge back in the day, popular not only for her upbeat presence but because she became the organizer of an open mike series and hip-hop shows. The rule was not to miss one of Maggie’s birthdays. They were wild with a bizarre assortment of people. Maggie now lives in LA. On either side of Maggie are los hermanos Saldivar. To the left is Mando, an aspiring musician and to her right is Juan, a surrealist painter.
Others between Maggie and Ron the Dreamer are Reggie (kneeling, with the knitted cap), another young painter who hung at the Bridge; Sergio in the horn-rimmed glasses, a downtown skater; Daniel in his baseball cap who has since moved to Austin; bearded Rick on the drums, a “Fewel Project” musician and live snake performer; and finally Mundo. Mundo is one of my favorite people downtown. A quiet man, he seems so steady and sure. He worked first at the Bridge, then at the Lumenbrite and now at the Percolator, all the time going to school. Although born in Mexico City, he's lived in Juarez for 20 years now with his mother. He's a musician, un puro fronterizo, one of those folks that make downtown so rich with soulfulness.
Between Ron the Dreamer and Natalie the French Gypsy are: Julio (standing), a young street musician who played on both sides of the border. He told Cesar once that he had better luck in Juaréz. Playing the bongos in the center of the painting is the the crowned drummer, the painter and Cesar’s good friend David Fleet. David is a very quiet and serious man, so quiet he almost cannot be googled. Cesar put the crown on his head because at the time he called him “the King of the Bongo” after a song made famous by Manu Chao. Above David to the right is Astrid who worked at the Bridge. Cesar says she always happily greeted him with cup of hot coffee during those mornings at the café.
Folks to the right of Natalie the French Gypsy are Jericho in the darkness, a musician who played in the Fewel Project; then below is the lady BB with her blue hair and her boyfriend Rafa (aka “Rafa Pistola”) who likewise played in the Fewel Project and is a founding member of Mexicans at Night; kneeling is Mike, aka “Miker,” an aerosol graffiti artist who was always changing the color of his hair; then, in the tradition of El Greco and others, a self-portrait of the artist Cesar Ivan stylized to look like an Egyptian prince and who, like Ron the Dreamer, is holding a light in his hand (an old-fashioned sense of the artist as prophet); next is the painter Tim Razo painter who used to live in the Abdou Building, left town and has returned, his art appearing in 12 different shows in the last two years; and finally Fran Santelli, a painter and a teller of fortune who from the look on her face must be reading the sad fortune of us all.
That’s about it for me right now. I’ll add the other two paintings in the Sideshow Series in the next few days.