Symbolism, identity and culture are intrinsically connected to the notion of community. Indeed, the sum parts of any society are made up of those who inhabit, celebrate and aspire to make worthy contributions in enriching the lives of its inhabitants. Of these residents, it’s the artist who, through intention and boldness, reflects on and reimagines this idea of “place” as a means of understanding what it means to belong.
For José Arenas, a Davis-based artist and educator who explores the idea of community and place through his own experiences as a youth traveling between San Jose, California, and Guadalajara, Mexico, the concept of belonging is a recurring theme in his work.
“What I’ve been doing is a continued exploration of themes that have to do with dual identities,” Arenas says. “For me, it’s the idea of myself at a young age picking up on what it means to belong and not to belong—the whole sort of sentiment of not being Mexican enough or not being American enough. So content-wise, the images that I use deal with migration and displacement and then finding home.”
Indeed, the idea of home has a specific place in Arenas’ work. From images inspired by his childhood, he weaves an emotionally poignant narrative that speaks to the plight we all face as humans in navigating our way home.
In his current exhibition at Pence Gallery in Davis, aptly titled A Place in Mind, Arenas’ work is a vivid collage of patterns and decorative elements cultivated through his nomadic escapades. The items that comprise each piece are extrapolated from various sources, including traditional, regional Mexican clothing and ceramics, metaphorical images like birds and houses, and navigational symbols, including maps, compasses and ships. Each element alludes to place, direction and the concept of duality.
“I definitely use image as a way of driving meaning,” Arenas explains. “In other words, symbol drives meaning. For example, you may see a bird in one of my pieces, but it’s not just a bird, it’s what the bird is pointing to that a sense of meaning is derived.”
An avid collector of all things inspirational, Arenas says his studio is littered with treasures he’s collected during his nomadic exploits, which include a teaching stint in New York at the Parsons School of Design, as well as exhibitions throughout the United States.
“The collection process is both based on the daily experiences of just being present, I guess,” he explains. “If something catches my eye, I collect it. So my studio is full of little snippets and pieces combined with drawings and sketches and printouts and photographs that I’ve taken.”
Of his artistic process, Arenas says that the beauty of everyday life is his muse, especially when he finds himself navigating through public spaces where a color relationship, a pattern or a texture can provide a solution to a creative problem he’s working through in a particular artwork. He says that through a combination of sketching and drawing and cutting and pasting familiar images that he captures on his camera, compositional possibilities emerge in his painterly work.
“I think that, in some way, this process is why my paintings can read kind of like collage,” he explains. “Lately, what I’ve been doing is making collages and printing out sections that I integrate with drawings and photographs through Photoshop or Illustrator where I continue that exploration of placement and composition. I find that exciting, the back and forth between the digital and analog. I still think of them as being the seeds of an idea.”
While Arenas has experienced success outside of California, both as an artist and professionally as an educator, his ongoing search for community and belonging led him back to his Northern Californian roots in 2017 with his wife and pre-teen daughter in tow.
In returning to Davis and embracing the community, Arenas, in addition to his teaching duties at UC Davis, accepted a position as associate director and chief curator of TANA/Taller Arte del Nuevo Amanecer, a community-centered silkscreen program and extension of the UC Davis Chicana/o Studies program in Woodland.
“I recently worked with a group of students in the program where, throughout the 10-week course, we had in-depth conversations and teased out the themes that they prioritize or issues they want to talk about,” he says. “They learn a great deal in the process about translating their ideas into a sketch and then a design that they paint.
“It’s been great to come back and explore the medium once again,” Arenas says of returning to one of the first artistic mediums he explored as a student, silkscreening. “I was deep into the painting medium, oil paint in particular, so it’s been great to see how my imagery evolves using that medium.”
Through cultivating and encouraging young artists to embrace their cultural heritage and creative passions at TANA and in his ongoing exploration of the symbols and themes in his work, Arenas aspires to continue his exploration of the nuances of cultural duality and the idea of home. This concept is no more apparent than in the vivid confines of one of the pieces currently on display in the Pence show titled, Casa Calli.
“The idea of past and present connect to my experience of trying to form the idea of home through the representation of the modern American track home,” he explains. “And also looking back to my indigenous roots and my Mexican-American mestizo is how I got interested in this subject matter and started thinking about how I would connect them.”
This idea of the Mexican-American mestizo is the driving force that permeates Arenas’ body of work and brings his narrative about place-making into reality. For Arenas, the concept of where we fit in and how we make viable contributions to the world in which we live is the driving force in his work. Indeed, he says that art should be a mirror of that experience.
“As a practicing artist, some people have the feeling that you’re only as good as your last show,” he says. “But my work is the continued excavation of these kinds of symbols and ideas that I’ve been exploring for quite some time. There’s not necessarily a beginning and an end to my work.”
Arenas looks at his current body of work as an extension of his curiosity in exploring how the symbols that comprise our shared cultural heritage impact our relationship to one another.
“When I look at the paintings—I’ve had an opportunity to go to the show and look at it all by myself—the work is actually catapulting me forward in terms of just being inspired and being excited to kind of jump into new things,” he explains. “I can see so many other ways that I can drive relationships between symbols and further explore how I’m pushing paint, at least in terms of technique and exploration.”
José Arenas’ A Place in Mind is on display now through Dec. 6, 2019, at the Pence Gallery (212 D St., Davis). For more info, check out Pencegallery.org. If you’d like to learn more about the artist, go to Josearenas.com.
**This piece first appeared in print on pages 18 – 19 of issue #304 (Nov. 6 – 20, 2019)**