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May lead to craving

Tortilla art could be an acquired taste, but it's proving popular at an L.A. exhibition.

March 26, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

CAN the lowly tortilla change the destiny of a local arts institution?

Perhaps, if it's the handiwork of Los Angeles artist Joe Bravo, whose tortilla art exhibition has become the attraction of the decade at the Mexican Cultural Institute in historic Olvera Street. And the paintings done on tortillas -- featuring colorful images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, an Aztec warrior and Che Guevara, among others -- are fetching as much as $1,800 apiece.

Flea, bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was so taken by the concept of tortillas as canvases that he ordered a framed, 2-foot Guadalupe piece, sight unseen, for his Malibu home. And McDonald's commissioned a $1,500 tortilla portrait of Ronald McDonald to promote the restaurant chain's new tortilla wrap snacks.

Bravo's unique artwork has also caught the attention of the Food Network, which invited the artist (on his own dime) to Miami Beach for the taping last month of the channel's awards show, which airs April 15. Bravo says he was nominated in the artwork-with-an-edible-twist category, "though mine aren't really edible, once they're coated with varnish."

Some call it kitsch. Some say it's just a novelty. But the elevation of the common tortilla to an object of beauty and admiration has struck a chord with the public, Latinos and non-Latinos alike.

The flat, round tortilla has been a staple of the Mexican diet since pre-Columbian days, both comfort food and cultural symbol for millions across all social classes. For Mexico's hungry masses, the inexpensive, filling tortilla stands for survival itself. In the U.S., the tortilla has become so commonplace that NASA includes it in its diet for astronauts.

Bravo is not the first to paint on tortillas. The practice has had exponents at least since the Chicano movement of the 1970s, notably San Francisco's Jose Montoya, who used a soldering gun to sear his images onto tortillas, and Los Angeles artist Alfredo de Batuc, who painted images of City Hall on snack-sized flour tortillas only 7 inches in diameter. Utah photographer Tom Forsythe wrapped tortillas around four Barbie dolls to make "Barbie Enchiladas," part of a satirical art series that provoked toy-maker Mattel to sue the artist, unsuccessfully.

Still, tortilla art is hardly a staple of the arts world.

"Otherwise we'd be having the tortilla biennial," jokes UCLA professor Chon Noriega, director of the Chicano Studies Research Center. "I think the critical question that will naturally emerge with tortilla art is this: corn or flour?"

For Bravo, it's flour all the way.

He uses oversized spheres custom made by the Tortilleria San Marcos, a family-owned business on 1st Street in Boyle Heights. The recipe is the same for standard tortillas, but Bravo's work calls for special settings and manual operation of the presses to create his jumbo-sized canvas, 28 inches in diameter.

The process took some experimentation.

"If it's pressed too much, the tortilla just blows up all over the press," says Andres Garcia, son of the tortilla factory's founders. "We gradually modified the settings, and eventually we got it right."

Bravo finishes the process at his home kitchen in Highland Park. First step: Singe the tortillas on an open flame. That makes them hard and gives them a black-speckled texture. Next lesson: Don't overdo the acrylic paint. "The secret, like a water color, is to let part of the tortilla show through," he says. Finally, he applies varnish to the finished work and covers the back with burlap, so it doesn't crumble.

For Bravo, 56, scarcity has always been the mother of invention. When he was a boy in the border town of Calexico, his family could not afford store-bought toys. So he made mud figures and carved wooden swords and slingshots. Later, when Bravo was a struggling art student at Cal State Northridge, the high cost of canvas made him contemplate a stale tortilla. For a class project, he made a mobile out of a few tortillas but later shelved the idea.

After graduating in 1973 with a bachelor's degree in graphic design, he painted murals and worked for ad agencies and magazines, including Lowrider. Recently, a friend reminded him of his university experiment with tortilla art, referring to it as "a great cultural statement."

It was enough to get Bravo to go back to his tortilla canvas, even though he has had some reservations.

"At first, I didn't want to be type-cast," Bravo says, "but if it opens doors, that's fine."

Back at Olvera Street, meanwhile, people have been flocking to the free exhibition, "Bravo: The Tortilla Paintings and Other Artworks of Joe Bravo," to get a glimpse of Bravo's crusty creations lining the walls of the institute's basement gallery facing the Placita Olvera. And they're treating Bravo like a celebrity when he shows up at the center, usually on weekends. It's not uncommon for him to autograph $5 reprints of his novel artwork. One woman even had hers blessed at a nearby church.

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