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Out of the Dark : He destroyed his art and began a 20-year journey of solitude and soul-searching. But now Beto de la Rocha wants to create again.

February 24, 1995|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

E l profesor leans on his cane--an old broomstick, actually--to receive the swarming well-wishers. They have come to a Highland Park bookstore to celebrate the re-emergence of Beto de la Rocha--a trailblazing artist who gave up a promis ing career in the mid-1970s to begin an excruci ating, 20-year work-in-progress: a retreat into his soul.

Not long after his involvement in a landmark exhibition of Chicano art, Rocha (as he prefers to be known) destroyed every one of his paintings and spent years seeking solitude and answers in a darkened house and a dog-eared Bible.

But on a recent Sunday at Arroyo Books, those who have gathered to view an exhibition he helped curate--historical photographs chronicling Los Angeles' early Mexican-American community--are grateful for what they find: a happy, smiling, public Rocha. A Rocha who has resumed his art.

"I'm not going back into isolation," he tells an admirer who greets him with a hug. "Beto's back."

*

Twenty years ago, Rocha defected from the Chicano art scene, broke and disenchanted by the glamour and attention that a record-breaking 1974 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had brought him and members of Los Four--artists whose work had finally found mainstream acceptance.

Fortune, says Rocha, failed to follow the fame his work had garnered. Impatient for success, he split from the quartet, which included Gilbert Lujan, Frank Romero and the late Carlos Almaraz--artists who eventually established individual careers, some of their works later selling for more than $50,000.

He divorced his wife and gave up a job as a fine-arts instructor at East Los Angeles Community College. He moved into his father's Lincoln Heights home, closed the drapes, placed heavy locks on the doors and lived in seclusion, venturing outdoors only for groceries or to take odd jobs, mostly in carpentry.

He read the Bible all day--every day--highlighting Scriptures, folding the corners of pages, memorizing verses. He took to heart the commandment not to make graven images and destroyed his artwork--considered by many, including his peers, as the best Chicano art of its time.

He ignored all pleas from friends, mostly artists who worried about his welfare. They heard about his 40-day fast, his body withering away from 145 pounds to 78. Eventually, they stopped calling, stopped dropping by.

And Rocha, who had come to regard all artists as "wicked and decadent," had himself been labeled by friends as "the lost one."

At his home, a small one-bedroom apartment he pays for with his monthly disability check, Rocha, 57, explains why he left.

"With the museum thing, I expected the whole world to open up to me. (But) nothing happened," he says, recalling that time as a young, hot artist toasted at parties and lauded for his talent. "I didn't know how to wait for success, how to be patient. I had this idea back then that once you began to work as an artist you could buy your car and have food to eat and raise your family. That doesn't happen. Very few people make any money at this profession."

He began to question his life--and future--as an artist and his role in el movimiento of the 1970s. "Being Chicano was new to us. We never heard that term," he says, adding that it was a struggle for him to deal with his own identity "and an aesthetic criteria."

So he quit painting because his soul demanded it, he says. "I had to come to grips with who I was." He needed "a method to my life." He turned to religion "because I wanted to be civilized. Back then I was hateful, not kind. I was just nasty." And God, he says, provided "the law, the rules, the commandments" that he followed.

His only son, Zack, then a young boy, unknowingly also helped his father find answers during that turbulent time. They shared an incident neither will ever forget.

"Zack asked me if he could have a landscape drawing of mine. He was holding the drawing in front of me: 'Daddy, can I have that?' I said, 'Hey, that's mine,' " Rocha recalls, pausing to fight back his tears. He grips his cane.

"Here was a very tender young boy asking for this thing--a piece of flat canvas with paint, an object, a nothing--and I denied it to my son, a human. How could I have been so possessive?" His voice cracks with emotion. "As you can see, it is painful for me now."

Later that night, Zack and his father ripped artwork off the walls, pulled it out of closets, from under the bed and behind doors. Beto plunged scissors into gorgeous landscapes, intricate woodblock prints and abstracts--many that had hung at the county museum--shredding everything he had ever created. Then, in a trash can, he burned the tattered scraps, splintered frames, paintbrushes and easels.

"That was my moment," he says. "That's when I told myself I no longer want to be an artist."

Zack de la Rocha, now 25 and a member of the rock band Rage Against the Machine, painfully remembers that time.

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