A contradiction embedded in the URL of artist Adán Hernández’s Facebook page speaks volumes about his character. The web address ends in “/vatolocophd,” a condensed version of vato loco Ph.D. that displays self-deprecating, biting humor, complete with a jab at academics who think they know more about life than a cholo artist of the street.
The self-described “crazy homeboy barrio scholar,” Hernández died May 15 at age 69, reportedly of complications from diabetes, leaving behind a career as a headstrong artist and doting educator of young art students.
Memorial services will be held Monday at 6 p.m. at Mission Park South, limited to 100 family and close friends, though members of the public can join to watch the services from their vehicles on the Mission Marquee Plaza movie screen.
Friends and colleagues alternately describe Hernández as abrasive, opinionated, tough, and self-aggrandizing, but also positive, giving, spiritual, and a professed vegan who could just as easily indulge in meaty dishes.
In his own brief Facebook biography, he acknowledges studying art at San Antonio College, but describes himself as “mostly self-taught.”
Even the most central aspects of Hernández’s life are told differently by various people who knew him, and by Hernández himself, according to Ruben Cordova, a prominent scholar of Chicano art who once researched the artist’s life and work.
The common narrative goes that Hernández was discovered when he was picked to make the art used in the 1993 movie Blood In, Blood Out directed by Taylor Hackford and starring San Antonio native Jesse Borrego in the role of artist Cruz Candelaria.
There are several versions of the story of how he was discovered, and Cordova “heard every different version of that narrative,” said Joseph Bravo, a curator, art historian, and former student of Cordova’s.
Bravo’s potentially apocryphal version has Hernández’s Con Safo group artist buddies “punking” him by telling him there was no room on the walls for his paintings, which as a result were hung in the windows facing the street, the bare backs of the canvases greeting viewers inside the show. However, the producers of Blood In, Blood Out, researching in San Antonio, noticed the paintings as they passed the gallery, stopped in, and “and the rest is history, as they say,” Bravo said.
Gabriel Velasquez, CEO of the Avenida Guadalupe neighborhood association and a longtime friend of Hernández, remembers it differently, that Hernández had already split from Con Safo and formed his own group, Los Quemados, and that Borrego was the instigator for hiring Hernández to produce the paintings used in the movie.
In either case, Hernández had already made enough of a splash that Metropolitan Museum of Art curator William Lieberman purchased two artworks from a Hernández solo show at the Janson-Perez gallery in 1991 for the museum’s permanent collection: La Media Luna, a pastel, and a painting titled There is a River. The latter appears in Blood In, Blood Out, and once appeared on billboards in Los Angeles for a campaign advertising San Antonio as a filmmaking destination.
The Met subsequently offered Hernández a solo exhibition, but in a move that set back his career, he turned it down.
Cordova said Hernández asked Lieberman how many Chicano artists were in the collection, and when he discovered he was the only one, Hernández said, “Well, call me back when you have five or 10, because I don’t want to be a token.”
Cordova said Hernández simply didn’t understand at the time how important a Met exhibition would have been not only for him but for Chicano art in general. Bravo concurs, saying that while he understood that Hernández “didn’t necessarily trust the Anglo establishment, “had he had some better advice, Chicano art may have ascended 25 years earlier. This was an opportunity to bring everybody forward.”
Hernández also refused to show or sell his formative Blood In, Blood Out paintings (though reproductions are available) and didn’t want to talk about them when Cordova asked about them for his research on the artist. “But at the same time, he wanted to revisit the Blood In, Blood Out paintings over and over again,” Cordova said, emphasizing the contradictory nature of Hernández.
The paintings, in Hernández’s original “Chicano noir” style, deserved the attention and praise they received, Cordova said.
“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was really one of the best Chicano painters,” he said, describing the work of the time as, “nocturnal settings pierced by brilliant neon light, [with] really beautiful vertiginous perspective. Very stylish, very original.”
Cordova remarked that Hollywood filmmakers seeking out a San Antonio artist to represent the Los Angeles scene, at the time “the biggest center for Chicano art,” was “significant … that’s a pretty big deal.”
Despite what Cordova described as an artistic decline after Hernández’s third wife, Debra Fischer, died of cancer in 1999, longtime friend and colleague Deborah Keller-Rihn said he remained a generous and giving presence with her Edgewood High School art students.
“He was very supportive of us,” Keller-Rihn said. “He would always show up for me, for my students,” handing out Blood In Blood Out movie posters and engaging with their artwork. “He was really nice to the kids.”
Artist Cruz Ortiz first met Hernández while a young muralist and praised his elder’s nurturing qualities as “a natural teacher, a natural mentor.”
Ortiz said Hernández helped in his transition to making studio paintings. “He really helped nurture my development, my voice. One of the things he would say is, when you paint every painting, paint as if it’s going to be in a museum. Because one day it will be.”
Hernández is survived by longtime partner Andrea Greimel, brother Armando Hernández, daughter Italia Lane, and sons Clayton Hernández, Adam Hernández, Corey Hernández, and James Hernández.