sfai news

March 26, 2013

SFAI Remembers Carlos Villa, 1936–2013

The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) is deeply saddened to announce the death of renowned artist, educator, and multicultural activist Carlos Villa on March 23, 2013, following a battle with cancer. He was 76. Villa had been a faculty member in SFAI's Painting department since 1969, and also earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the school.

The recipient of a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship in the Fine Arts, Villa has been called "the most significant U.S.-based visual artist of Filipino descent of the latter half of the twentieth century" by scholar Theodore Gonzalves, editor of the book Carlos Villa and the Integrity of Spaces. Other honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Pollock-Krasner Grant, an Affiliated Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, and service on the boards of the College Art Association, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and The Luggage Store, a nonprofit, artist-run multidisciplinary arts organization.

"Carlos's death is a loss not only to the San Francisco Art Institute—a place that he made his home for five decades, first as a student and then as a beloved teacher and mentor—but to the broader network of artists, activists, and community organizers with whom he worked to expand society's understanding of the rich rewards of cultural diversity," said SFAI President Charles Desmarais. "His work and life serve as a powerful model of art's ability to challenge social conditions, and his generosity of spirit will continue to inspire the innumerable people whose lives he impacted."

"Carlos Villa will remain an irreplaceable figure in the multicultural movement," added MacArthur award-winning artist and scholar Amalia Mesa-Bains. "Starting from his own cultural heritage as a Filipino American he brought a broader vision to the struggle for cultural rights. As an artist and cultural worker he was a leader in bringing together a new community of some of the greatest thinkers, writers, artists, and educators of our age to share their knowledge and passion. He was a generous and humble activist and brilliant artist who changed the face of multiculturalism and educated a new generation of artists through inspiration and practice."

Villa was born in San Francisco in 1936 to immigrant parents from the Philippines. After military service in Korea, in 1958 he enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts (now SFAI). Immersed in the creative energy at the school, Villa studied under Elmer Bischoff, Manuel Neri, and Richard Diebenkorn, among others, and was an original member of Bruce Conner's Rat Bastard Protective Association, a group of artists that included Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Joan Brown, and Jess Collins. Villa received his BFA degree in 1961, and later was awarded an MFA at Mills College. He lived in New York from 1964 to 1969, before returning to San Francisco and SFAI.

Having worked principally as an abstract painter, Villa's art shifted upon his return to San Francisco to a personal exploration of non-western art traditions and the influence of tribal art from Melanesia and New Guinea, incorporating materials such as blood, bone, hair, teeth, and shells. During the 1970s, he created several large-format works on painted canvas that incorporated feathers, which he sometimes used in performance, suggesting shamanic rituals. Many of his later works take the form of painted wooden doors or containers, grooved and lined with a woodworker's awl, that conjure ideas of memory, language, and transiency.

Villa's work through community actions explored the contributions of ethnically diverse artists to contemporary American art. Among Villa's major projects is Rehistoricizing Abstract Expressionism in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1950s-1960s, a 2010 exhibition, symposium, and website (www.rehistoricizing.org) that presents the work of women artists and artists of color from varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds who were undervalued at that time. Other groundbreaking projects include the 1976 exhibition and symposium Other Sources; an extended series of multicultural programs in the late 1980s and early 1990s called "Sources of a Distinct Majority"; and "Worlds In Collision," an interdisciplinary curriculum, symposium series, and Filipino American art history website (www.worldsincollision.org).

Villa is the subject of the recent book Carlos Villa and the Integrity of Spaces (Meritage Press, 2011), and was honored in 2011 with the survey exhibition Manongs, Some Doors, and a Bouquet of Crates at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco. Villa's work was included in Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981, a major survey presented last year by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. It has also been included in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; de Young Museum, San Francisco; Oakland Museum; Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento; American Academy in Rome; and the Havana Biennial. In his later career, however, he largely exhibited at alternative spaces and university galleries, and once appeared in a full-body gorilla costume as a self-described "Gorilla from Manila" to signal his alienation from establishment art venues.

Said SFAI Professor Emeritus Bill Berkson, "It was inspiring to see how much he took on—the astonishing synthesis of his own late work; his teaching, always intense, affirmative and to the point; his activism on behalf of a bigger art history. With all that, he had a light touch, always a sweet music about him. Dancing to his memory seems more appropriate than anything else."

"Carlos Villa was a wonderful artist, teacher, and humane being," added artist William T. Wiley, a former classmate. "He had a very loving, heart-based, generous spirit that he shared with everyone regardless. I—we—will miss him and the positive energy he brought to the world and his art."

Villa is survived by his wife Mary Valledor, daughter Sydney, stepson Rio Valledor, sister Esther Popescu, and an extended family. Donations in his memory may be made to the San Francisco Art Institute to support student scholarships. A public memorial service will be held on Thursday, April 25, from noon to 2 pm in the SFAI Lecture Hall at 800 Chestnut Street, San Francisco. Attendees are asked to RSVP for the service at www.sfai.edu/CarlosVilla.

Image via San Francisco Arts Quarterly