Chuey Quintanar has three pieces in the show “The Body Electric” at the Ricco/Maresca gallery—a collection of both ancient and modern tattoo art—each of which contains a modern young Latina woman, ancient hispanic iconography or some combination of the two.
In one piece, the iconography looks as if it could be in a museum, a mask that speaks to its ancient hispanic lineage, with just a vague sense that the furrowed brow of the anonymous warrior face at its center might contain an edge of modern rage behind its ornately adorned stare. Its a piece that would look at home, both in the stone-work of a Mayan temple or on a t-shirt in the gift shop.
And in the second piece, a sexy but clueless outlaw in a sombrero and frilly blouse, with a revolver in her hand and a flower in her hair—a stereotype of a stereotype—is embedded into two skulls. One skull is a symbolic tapestry of bone parts spewing the lifeless smoke of native iconography, and the other is a modern, anatomically realistic skull wrapped in a gang bandana, smoking a creepy spliff. This lifeless stereotype is like a central mantle piece lost against the velvety smoke rug hung behind it in a living room that is too cluttered: it’s difficult to immediately feel the central tension, and then, once you see it, too obvious to linger very long.
But the young woman at the heart of “Chola and Smile Now Cry Later Roses,” the third piece, stands out against an uncluttered, mostly blank background. The realistic expression on this sexy Latina’s face is both posed and defiant, the expression of a modern girl used to staring into a camera and not backing down. But her hair falls in snakelike waves, which suggest Medusa or a sun-goddess, without falling into caricature. Instead of being beaten over the head with iconography, a small virgin Mary is nestled into a meta-tatoo on her arm, and we feel the sexiness of her nipples peeping through her wife beater next to the purity of Jesus’ mother as a real, lived tension between tradition and modernity.
Her torso grows out of two giant roses, each with a mask for a petal which underlines love’s two faced nature—a form of kitsch that a convict might include in a tattoo for his now ex-wife. But the faces of the masks in this case are just defined enough, in their expression of maniacal laughter and tragic loss, that the emotion doesn’t feel merely symbolic but specific, a love that is disastorously over-the-top and sweet enough that its loss would break a person.
In short, the tattoo takes a genre of tattoo that frequently feels like a caricature of itself, the romantic homage, and endows it with tension and depth.