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January ArtHop: Michael Garcia returns with an introspective show at Downtown Artist Gallery

In February 2013, I wrote these lines in the Fresno Bee: “A new show by Michael Garcia is always a major event on the Fresno arts scene. That’s the case with this month’s ArtHop, the open house of studios and galleries in the downtown and Tower District areas.”

Nearly nine years later, I’m saying the exact same thing.

Pictured above: A new work by Michael Garcia at Downtown Artist Gallery.

Garcia’s untitled show, which opens for January ArtHop (Thursday, Jan. 6) at Downtown Artist Gallery (in the old Bus Barn Building) – one of Fresno’s newest ArtHop venues – promises to be another blockbuster from the longtime Fresno artist. (ArtHop is 5-8 p.m. at most venues. Check the Arts Council’s website for updates.)

He continues with his well known aesthetic, which is heavily influenced by the time he spent in Asia, particularly 10 years living in Japan. The artist’s process involves building up richly layered paint on panels, then tearing them down by scraping, sanding and burning. Garcia enjoys delving deeply into one of his favorite shapes, the circle, exploring the philosophical and psychological connections.

“I still have the same maru (Japanese for circle) recipe, working on wood and the basic materials – house paint to oil and wax, some enamel paint,” Garcia told me in an interview this week. “When I first had a show in Fresno, all the work had calligraphy on it. Now I think there are three pieces that have calligraphy. I’m moving away from it. I’m trying other things.”

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If there is a theme to the show, it would be that of loss. In 2020, Garcia lost his 93-year-old mother and 99-year-old aunt – he took care of them both – and three friends.

“That was sort of the juice in me that was going on,” he says.

Asian influences

Garcia’s fascination with Asian cultures came early. When he was 7 years old, his mother took him on a trip to San Francisco. At one point they ended up in Chinatown. He was “blown away” by the language, bustle, smells and especially the calligraphy. He found a page of a Chinese-language newspaper on the ground and kept it proudly as a treasure, showing it off to his friends in Madera.

Years later, he would go on to graduate from Cal Arts, and in the early 1980s he finally made it to Japan. He loved it: the beauty, the oddness, the changing culture and attitudes. In subsequent visits he got jobs teaching English and had plenty of time to make art in his free time. Visits to China, the Philippines and Thailand ensued.

He uses both Japanese and Chinese calligraphy in his works.


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Three of the pieces in this new show are specifically linked to Zen Buddhism “death poetry,” a genre he discovered on his last trip to Japan. In the Zen tradition, monks who are close to death write a poem as a last statement to the world. The poem includes the name and date of birth of the person who wrote it – sort of a self-written obituary.

It might sound gruesome from a Western perspective, but for Garcia, the poems are life affirming.

“It made a connection to me because all these people had died and gone on in my life,” he says.

Big scale

There are 13 works in the new show. He completed most during the pandemic. Like most artists, COVID was a career disruptor for him. He’d been scheduled to have a show at the HelMel Studios & Gallery on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles – owned by actor Val Kilmer – but then things got shut down.

Throughout the decades, Garcia has been a prominent name on the Fresno art scene. He co-owned Club Jinnaka, an influential gallery. And he’s had notable shows at such venues as Arte Americas and the now-shuttered 1821 Gallery and Studios.

It was at that 1821 show that I read one of my favorite comments about his work. The gallery noted that Garcia was influenced by his years in Japan. But the artist’s work “also mirrors the strength and character of the Valley, echoing the worn and rust-soaked boards of Garcia’s grandmother’s home in Madera, a place that now only exists in memory.”

Those familiar with his work will recognize his signature touches in this new show, but they also might be surprised at the scale. One of the works is a whopping 10 feet long.

For Garcia, he’s just happy for a chance to show his work and mingle with people – even if we all should be wearing medical-grade masks. (It helps that the Downtown Artist Gallery is in a big, airy warehouse.)

“I’m still around,” he says with a laugh. “COVID has hassled a lot of people, some of them significantly. I just had to stay home and I was doing that anyway.”

Along with ArtHop, a reception will be held noon-5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 8. The gallery is located at 701 L St (at Mono Street).


 


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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