It’s unlikely Seattle University has a vermin problem. But if a squirrel or rat were scurrying around in the basement studio of the University’s Art & Art History Department this week, its chances of survival seem slim. The creature would likely be caught in plastic bottles or crushed by the weight of 50-pound stones, all functional traps fashioned by artist Francisco Guerrero.
“Just don’t touch the triggering side,” he warns when I ask if I can position my recorder on a table filled with plastic bottle contraptions and a wooden trap. On two pedestals across the room, delicate arrangements of timber wedges balance large stones. “Those are really heavy,” Guerrero says of the stones. “If you fuck it up, the sticks will break and it will smush your hand flat.”
The SU associate professor of painting and drawing is not preparing for doomsday but for Loaves and Fishes, a prepper-inspired exhibit full of traps and vertical garden-influenced sculptures opening this Thursday at Gallery 4Culture. It’s his first solo show since Torito + Castillos at Vachon Gallery (at SU) in 2016.
“Initially, I was set on a very different type of show,” he says. “My initial idea was focused more on the food-production side of the prepper community. But the Trump thing kept snowballing, and I found myself going back to apocalyptic prepping and military objects. More violent, more depressing images as opposed to the nurturing aspect of off-the-grid agricultural techniques and ancient Mexican food growing methods.”
That nurturing facet fell away because of Trump?
Partly. Originally, I had these images in my head from the early ’60s: Self-sustainable growing-your-own food type of utopian images. I was planning to use a large black manger to create a circular aquaponic system. But it ended up feeling like a coffin.
Dystopia crept in?
In a way. It was also not working for me aesthetically. The utopian garden symbolism just didn’t stick. Take these rock traps: It’s super straightforward, violent imagery. The only garden imagery still in the show is in the trellises, a personal reference to my grandparent’s garden in San Diego and my memories of the green wrapping of the timber holding saplings.
What about the military intrigues you?
I’m really fascinated by the visual aspect of medieval military formations: How people formed geometric patterns and how that exemplifies Western European military thought. For some reason, Greek geometry was a big deal for Western military guys. For me, it represents Western culture. I connect that to images of the rain god cultivating corn that I pulled from an ancient codex. These codexes were made at the behest of Spanish priests to explain and record pre-Columbian culture. It’s one of the few historical sources for pre-Columbian peoples, but it’s force-made.
You layer different forms of violence?
Absolutely. The final layer is about the apocalyptical prepper communities, whose language is very much Christian right. Their discourse is not always directly anti-Muslim or white supremacist, but it has this thinly veiled “our culture comes first” aspect to it. I connect that to the Christian missionaries that go to the “third world” to teach people “self-sustainability”: How to farm, use solar power or do water reclamation. This idea that they have to “save” the little brown people and teach them how to survive, while indigenous peoples have been farming and trapping fish since the dawn of time.
When talking about preppers, I think of camo, earth tones. You chose bright, almost neon-colored accents.
I like to flip expectations. In my last show, Torito + Castillos, I airbrushed security cameras in bright colors. Taking the oppressive object and shifting it into something else is really interesting. Here, the traps become near-decorative. You could almost see them at a store like Totokaelo. That level of aesthetics is the connection to capitalist culture. It’s a disconnect that is supposed to draw you in.
You’ve been a painter for two decades and have been teaching painting and drawing for over 15 years. Have you evolved into a full-on sculptural practice?
I don’t know why that shift in my work happened. I remember doing an artist talk in San Antonio about eight years ago. I was showing my work on a PowerPoint presentation and thought: “That’s a thing that I just kind of finished.” I didn’t believe it, really. That coincided with the economic crisis, not having gallery representation and not being pushed artistically.
Do you still paint?
Pretty much all the time. I’m still involved in trying to figure out painting, but it’s really complicated. It’s fucking hard. It takes a lifetime to get there.
How come you didn’t think the topics we’ve discussed could be tackled through painting?
[Hesitates] With paintings, I never feel done. It never feels complete—it’s always a failed attempt. My installations are doing the things that I want them to be doing. Making objects is much more satisfying.
Loaves and Fishes opens at Gallery 4Culture on Jan. 4