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San Antonio artist Alberto Mijangos used the numbers 1, 5, and 9 as a symbol of the beginning (1), middle (5), and end (9) of life. However, Mijangos might have gotten stuck at just “1” if a lie he told at age 12 had gotten the better of him.
At the YMCA in his native Mexico City, Mijangos brazenly told a trainer he could swim, then jumped in the pool to prove it. He nearly drowned. “I hated to tell people that I didn’t know [how] to do things, and even if I knew I was going to die jumping in the water – goodbye, world,” as Mijangos said in a 2003 oral history recorded for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
Mijangos survived the pool, eventually to become an artist and produce an extensive body of artwork before his death in 2007 at age 81. Nearly 100 works covering more than 50 years are collected in Alberto Mijangos: 159, a retrospective exhibition of his paintings on view through Jan. 13 at Centro de Artes.
The show was curated by Teresa Eckmann, associate professor of contemporary Latin American art at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who adopted the “159” theme to group Mijangos’ work chronologically. The first floor, or the “1” of the exhibition, gathers the artist’s earliest work, through his early experiments with abstraction, and continues with the “5” section that features his important series of “T-shirt” works begun in 1980.
Upstairs in the Centro de Artes galleries, the “9” section focuses on the mid-1990s Chónes series of large-scale paintings, which reveal preoccupations of the artist in more ways than one. Eckmann calls the series the “full-blown maturity of his work. He just throws it all in there.” A text panel on the wall neatly captures the complexity of the works: “abstract, architectural, sumptuously textured, playful, phallic, and layered with drips, scrawls, letters, words, organic shapes, and pleasing hues.”
However, the actual subject focus of the works is less visible: underwear. Subsumed by those thick layers of scrawl and paint, shapes eventually coalesce into undergarment forms, which Mijangos related to subjects that people might prefer to hide.
The artist himself might have had much to hide, including growing up during the bloody “War of the Cristeros,” a post-revolutionary Mexican religious war, the death of his beloved mother at age 14, entering the United States illegally and being deported several times, early bouts with drunkenness that would become a prolonged battle with alcoholism, resulting family difficulties including divorce, and two suicide attempts.
These events and the resulting internal struggles might be logged in his paintings by the occasional scrambling of the “159” motif into different orders: 195, 591, or 951, with its intimations of impending mortality or looking backwards through life.
Yet, as with his oral history, the artist shared it all. “He was always so open about his life,” said his daughter Laura Mijangos-Rapp, also an artist. “He was able to use the pain for a purpose, and a passion. He really hit some hard bottoms” but learned from all of it, she said.
Paula Owen said she would not have become president of the Southwest School of Art, a position she has held for 22 years during the school’s period of expansion, without Mijangos. He served as the artists’ representative on the school’s board of trustees and on the search committee that eventually chose her for the position.
“He could see what the institution could become even at that time,” when it was still called the Southwest Craft Center, Owen said. “He was one of the reasons that I decided to take the position.”
Mijangos also shared his life lessons as a teacher, first at the Southwest School, then at his own Salon Mijangos in Southtown, which became a gathering place for artists, including Sandy Whitby, Linda Perez, Andy Benavides, and many others. “He was open to any visitors that would come in,” Whitby said, and his studio and salon became “an open door for the community of artists.”
Whitby still works in a studio next to what was once Mijangos’ salon, in the 1906 building on South Flores Street that Benavides bought with Mijangos and still maintains. Mijangos “taught us a lot of lessons that really stay with you,” she said. “He opened our eyes to things we didn’t see in our life.”
Earlier in his career, Mijangos had worked as a graphic designer, decorating windows at Joske’s downtown department store and creating Mi Tierra’s first menu design in 1955. These experiences helped him empathize with issues other young artists might face, including Whitby. Before taking Mijangos’ painting class at the Southwest School, she too had been a graphic designer. When painting, she found herself always anxious about finishing, but Mijangos told her that painting had no deadlines. “Take time out of the equation,” he told her, just one of his many sayings that would stick with her.
Another important lesson she took from him, Whitby said, was that “what you had to communicate through your art was valid no matter what kind of art you did. He taught us all to not be afraid to be who we were as artists.”
Whitby stands as a clear example of Mijangos’ influence, Eckmann said. “The beauty of his students work is that he helped them all within their own style,” a thought which struck her after viewing Whitby’s work while researching for the 159 exhibition. “With Sandy Whitby’s work I saw a true continuation of his legacy – that large scale, that abstraction, that freedom of gesture, and mixed media.”
Yet his influence has remained largely local in part because Mijangos was not able to gain “traction” during his lifetime, according to Eckmann.
“The  exhibition, I hope, is a starting point,” Eckmann said, for wider, even international, recognition of Mijangos’ work.
Mijangos’ influence extends beyond his work as an artist and teacher. One important legacy is the Mexican Cultural Institute, which grew out of Mijangos’ work as an official cultural attaché of the Mexican government. After several years as its director, a political change in Mexico forced his resignation in 1973. While the experience left him embittered, he eventually re-established himself by following one of his own life lessons,
– described by his daughter as “We can become bitter and stay there, or pick ourselves up.”
After a period of disillusionment, Mijangos entered Alcoholics Anonymous in 1979, thanks to the help of a concerned friend. A return to painting followed, then his decision to dedicate himself to years of cultural work, artmaking, and building community.
In 2001, Owen mounted a solo exhibition of Mijangos’ new work at the Southwest School, titled Alberto Mijangos: Trusting the Darkness.
In her essay for the show, Owen wrote that the paintings’ combinations of dark forms and light grounds “convey the relationship between the physical and the metaphysical.” She quotes Mijangos as saying, “we have to have the guts to search for the eternal in the dark. This is the only way we can be deeply moved.”
Diagnosed with lymphoma as he entered his eighties, Mijangos courageously faced the darkness of his own mortality.
“You wonder how you will face your death, if you’ll be able to face it with that same grace,” Mijangos-Rapp said. “But he did – he was able to walk the walk. He told my brother [Albert], ‘It’s time and I’m ready.’ There was never any self-pity.”
Owen once glimpsed the artwork Mijangos had made while in the hospital facing death. “He told me one time that he couldn’t stop painting because the physical and emotional act of applying paint to a surface was something he needed like food,” she said.
Indeed, “He was still doing his art to the very end,” Mijangos-Rapp said. “He passed around drawing pads and we’d all still draw together,” she said of family members gathered around his bedside. “It was a very beautiful time right up until the very end.”
One painting from 1997, titled Chónes Series (8), hints at Mijangos’ growing awareness of his limits and legacy. The painting’s title derives from a scrawled, chalky, figure-8 that dominates the large canvas. In another painting from 1993, Apreciación a la miel (Appreciation of Honey), the figure appears in its horizontal form, as an infinity symbol, which suggests a more mysterious end to the 159 life cycle — and takes times out of the equation, just as he advised others to do.
Alberto Mijangos: 159 runs through Jan. 13 at Centro de Artes. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. More information is available on the website of the Department of Arts and Culture, which manages Centro de Artes.