By Michael Chesnick
School of Art
For years, Alejandro Macias shied away from using his experience growing up on the Texas-Mexico border as the subject of his figure paintings. “I felt everyone around me knew this experience,” he said, “so why speak on it?”
But during his first residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2016, Macias witnessed other young contemporary artists drawing inspiration from their life journeys. “This gave me the confidence and validation to speak on the bicultural experience, assimilation, acculturation, and use sociopolitical subject matter to exercise my voice,” he said.
Now, the University of Arizona School of Art assistant professor is being honored for embracing that voice.
Not only did Macias land a prestigious three-month CALA Alliance residency this summer for Latinx artists, but he also received the Lehmann Emerging Artist Award from the Phoenix Art Museum and saw his “Man on Fire” painting acquired by the University of Arizona Museum of Art for its permanent collection.
Macias will focus his residency work on the U.S.-Mexico border, including systems of repression, oppression, erasure, disappearances and stories of migration.
“It’s content that I’ve been wanting to investigate using multimedia approaches, such as painting, drawing, printmaking and video,” said Macias, who plans to interview people across the borderlands, collaborate with local organizations and research statistical data.
“I’d like to explore this content with sincerity, and I’m hoping that my work can do these experiences justice and expand the U.S.-Mexico border discourse,” added Macias, who said the project will exhibit in yet-to-be-determined spaces in Phoenix and New York.
Macias is sharing the Lehmann Emerging Artist Award with Yaritza Flores Bustos, who migrated from Mexico to Phoenix at a young age. The two will be part of a joint exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, starting July 19, along with Fronterizx Collective, the Scult Artist Award recipient.
“These artists each explore identity in distinct ways but through a shared lens of life on the borderlands, defined by varying migration patterns and transnational identity,” said Christian Ramírez, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary and community art initiatives.
For Macias, “I couldn’t be more excited to exhibit within such an incredible museum and alongside such esteemed and accomplished artists,” he said.
Macias is also excited about the residency program at the CALA Alliance (Celebración Artística de las Américas), which provides artists with housing, studio space, a generous stipend and future exhibition opportunities. The group’s executive director and curator is Alana Hernandez.
“I truly respect Alana’s mission on making this opportunity a reality for so many emerging and established Latinx artists,” Macias said. “Her goal to uplift Arizona Latinx artists is beyond admirable because southern Arizona is a unique experience within the United States socio-political climate. … I feel it’s a place where many artists are tucked away and go unnoticed, due to the magnitude of the East Coast and West Coast art scenes. Alana is uncovering and contributing to the contemporary Latinx art canon in a regional, national and international way. I’m happy to even be a small fragment of CALA Alliance’s history.”
(CALA is hosting a mixed-media workshop with Macias on June 24, 2023, from noon to 2 p.m. in Phoenix. See details below.)
Born and raised in Brownsville, Texas, Macias received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Brownsville in 2008 and a Master of Fine Arts in 2-D Studio Art from the University of Texas-Pan American in 2012.
“Brownsville is full of rich history and is a safe haven for many Mexican migrants and families struggling to survive,” Macias said. “It was an atmosphere and experience that I felt truly enveloped by, especially as a child, because I traversed between Brownsville and Matamoros in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Brownsville has an approximately 94% Hispanic population, and I’m second-generation Mexican American myself.”
One of Macias’ mentors was Carlos G. Gomez, his painting professor at UT Brownsville and a friend who migrated to the U.S. from Mexico City as a young child. Gomez died from brain cancer in early 2016, and Macias said, “the culmination of his teachings and guidance still affect my artistic practice today.”
Macias was a lecturer at UT Brownsville, which later became the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, before accepting a position at University of Arizona School of Art in 2019 as a painting and drawing assistant professor.
“We spent two years actively looking for a faculty member who could make positive contributions to our Painting program while also speaking to the unique experiences of the region in which we reside,” School of Art Director Colin Blakely said. “When we came in contact with Alex, we knew we had found exactly what we were looking for. He brings an important perspective and voice to our programs, and it’s exciting to watch the well-deserved success his work has garnered.”
In addition to Vermont, Macias also participated in residencies at Chateau d’Orquevaux in France, The Studios at MASS MoCA and the Wassaic Project in New York. He’s been a part of recent group exhibitions at the Visual Arts Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, Amarillo (Texas) Museum of Art, Carlsbad (N.M.) Museum of Art, Las Cruces (N.M.) Museum of Art and Arizona State University Art Museum.
Macias held solo exhibitions at Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts in Lubbock, Texas; Presa House Gallery in San Antonio and Tucson Museum of Art, and was featured in the West Issue #156 of New American Paintings, juried by Lauren R. O’Connell, curator of contemporary art at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
Just recently, the University of Arizona Museum of Art acquired Macias’ 2022 “Man on Fire” painting — a work inspired by his first visit to the UAMA gallery in 2019 and seeing renowned artist Luis Jimenez’s sculpture with the same title.
Jimenez, who died in a studio accident in 2006, was a central figure in the Chicano art movement, known for his small drawings and prints to monumental sculptural works. Jimenez’s “Man on Fire” work, Macias said, speaks on the Spanish colonization of the Aztec empire and the torture of its ruler, Cuauhtémoc, the Buddhist monk who set himself ablaze to protest the Vietnam War, Thich Quang Duc, as well as Chicano identities along the Southwest.
“I felt inspired to … pay homage to such an iconic Chicano figure,” Macias said. “In this case, I am critiquing my own American assimilation through an image of myself burning. The serape Mexican textile, which reinforces my ethnic and cultural background, burns away in the shape of a flame over my head. … As a side note, I am also honoring Presa House Gallery within my T-shirt, a San Antonio art space that centralizes the voices of Latinx artists within central and south Texas.”
School of Art alumna Olivia Miller (BFA ’05), new director of UAMA, said she was “struck by Alex’s approach. … He was inspired by (Jimenez’s) sculpture, but he created a painting unique to his aesthetic and his personal experience.”
“While it’s exciting to see how Alex’s painting connects to existing works in the collection in provocative ways, it’s also important for the museum to support the perspectives of contemporary Latinx artists in our region,” Miller said.
Those words mean a lot, Macias said.
“I’m happy to hear that UAMA is investing in Latinx voices and continuing the legacy of Luis Jimenez through his influence,” he said. “I’m humbled and honored to be included in a such an important collection.”