Silvia Benedetti on Roberto Gil de Montes

“Temporada de lluvias” (Rainy Season) marked Roberto Gil de Montes’s first exhibition in Mexico, where he was born in 1950. Raised primarily in California and active in the Los Angeles art scene of the 1970s and ’80s, Gil de Montes relocated about twenty years ago to the small Pacific Coast town of La Peñita de Jaltemba, which has served as the setting for his depictions of the queer body since. The lush recent paintings exhibited here portrayed well-tanned men, in varying states of nudity, lounging, swimming, posing, or just hanging out amid the coastal enclave’s verdant tropical flora.

Gil de Montes’s palette evokes the vivid hues that follow tropical showers; he depicts not the rain, but rather its aftermath—floods, stagnant water, high tide. Lines blur. Thick brushstrokes in oil on linen eliminate details so that some works appear unfinished. Most often, he employs a flat perspective with brusque color fields and stark contrasts reminiscent of folk art. In Boca Chica (all works 2022), a couple of young men go for a swim at the beach near an old cemetery, where numerous bodies were disinterred by flooding after a hurricane in 2002. In the painting, the graves appear as blocks of color, only hinting at what they are.

The similarly large-format San Sebastián del trópico portrays the wounded saint—who was martyred for not renouncing his faith but is often associated with queerness—entering a body of water flanked by dark-green and brown foliage. Instead of the usual arrows, his body is riddled with bullet holes. Frida Kahlo used similar iconography in her painting of an arrow-pierced doe with her own face, The Wounded Deer, 1946. In other works, Gil de Montes employs the deer as an emblem of desire and vulnerability, while also alluding to its symbolic power within some indigenous Mexican traditions. For instance, Días de lluvia (Days of Rain) is based on a pre-Hispanic deer dance that dates back approximately five thousand years and fascinated the artist when he was a child. The Yaqui and other Native people of present-day Sonora and Sinaloa venerate Mother Earth by acting out the life and death of a precious white stag. Gil de Montes adds an absurd twist to this folkloric ceremony by imagining men with deer headdresses in a calm sea, as if they were decoys. The none-too-subtle suggestion is that these guys might wish to be captured by their pursuers.

Not unlike water, curtains can be sites of transition, signifying shifts from public to private, known to unknown, life to death. The artist uses transparent veils—as in Cocotero (Coconut Vendor) and Rey, or in Él (Him), which shows a nude young man whose genital region is smooth, like a doll’s—to evoke rebirth and renewal, but also loss. Such themes likely hearken back to Gil de Montes’s traumatic memories of losing many peers and loved ones to HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s. This connection is also evident in his painting of a man with a fish, who could be Saint Raphael. The biblical figure, often depicted with a fish, performed miracle cures and is best known for quelling a sixteenth-century pandemic.

A side room of archival materials demonstrated how Gil de Montes has also combined art with social activism throughout his six-decade career, most notably in his collaborations with institutions and collectives such as LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) and Asco as part of the Chicano art movement in 1970s and ’80s East Los Angeles. By complementing the artist’s recent paintings with a presentation of historical photographs and documents, “Rainy Season” pointed to the breadth of Gil de Montes’s work, which has yet to be explored in depth. This glimpse of his expansive career was a testament to its enduring relevance and a convincing suggestion that he is overdue for a larger institutional show.

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