In a number of presumed self-portraits, Carlos Almaraz paints himself as a sort of half-man, half-jaguar figure. It's an icon straight out of Mesoamerican mythology, explains Howard Fox, who has spent the past several years curating LACMA's current Almaraz retrospective, “Playing With Fire.”

“The jaguar was able to pass freely from the spirit world to the human world, and communicate with both worlds about both worlds,” Fox says. “So he's a kind of shamanistic figure, a kind of beastlike intercessor between the two worlds.”

We're looking at Almaraz's painting City Jaguar, in which a muscular man covered in spots, a tail sprouting from the back of his purple briefs, is posed like Atlas as a tangle of buildings sways and collapses about him, sending shadowy human figures fleeing in every direction. The jaguar man's hands aren't visible but, based on the heroic pose, it would appear that he's holding something up, as if he's preventing the sky from crashing down on the already chaotic scene. Either that or, as Fox suggests, the figure is changing realms once again, reaching upward, out of the painting and right into the world of the viewer.

Carlos Almaraz, Growing City, 1988; Credit: © Carlos Almaraz Estate, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA, by Robert Wedemeyer

Carlos Almaraz, Growing City, 1988; Credit: © Carlos Almaraz Estate, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA, by Robert Wedemeyer

In art and in life, until his death in 1989, Almaraz had a similar ability to exist in and pass freely between multiple realms. Born in Mexico City and subsequently raised in East Los Angeles, he was a member of the influential Chicano art collective Los Four, along with Frank Romero, Gilbert “Magú” Luján, Beto de la Rocha and Judithe Hernández. With his comrades, Almaraz largely produced murals, banners and theatrical backdrops to further political causes such as the United Farm Workers', until he began to feel his creativity was being stymied by notions of essential identity.

“As part of the whole civil rights movement at the time … he began to realize that his own inner life was being excluded from his art,” Fox says. “That's when he started to, at first, withdraw from the Chicanismo movement, and then he ultimately, I would say, became more or less estranged from it.”

Almaraz claimed to have had more than one near-death experience — including a bout with pancreatitis in the 1970s that reportedly was so grave that he woke to find a priest performing last rites and anointing him with oil — before dying due to complications from AIDS. Almaraz, who was married to artist Elsa Flores and had a daughter, had relationships with both men and women in his early life. This duality — and the turmoil that resulted — is represented throughout “Playing With Fire.”

Actor and renowned art collector Cheech Marin is responsible for originally floating the idea of putting together an Almaraz retrospective to LACMA director Michael Govan. Marin enlisted Fox to curate and work got underway; then Govan decided he wanted to postpone the exhibit several years to coincide with the Getty's second Pacific Standard Time initiative, PST: LA/LA. “I said, 'I might not even be alive five years from now,'?” Marin says with a laugh. “But he said it'll go by fast.” It did.

The additional time also gave Fox the opportunity to put out a call to the public for pieces that might have been sold but not recorded (Almaraz wasn't known for meticulous bookkeeping, although he was a prolific journaler and several of his sketchbooks and diaries are on display under glass as part of the show). Marin lent six Almaraz pieces from his personal collection to the exhibit; there's also a piece on loan from Jack Nicholson, a violent car crash that sends two cars off a cliff in a burst of fire and twisted metal.

There's an entire series of disaster images in “Playing With Fire,” paintings that seem to represent violent clashes of concepts or ideas. They're violent but also still and beautiful — set, as they are, against beach scenes and night skies — and mostly devoid of any perceptible human carnage. Fox put these in a gallery along with several paintings of idyllic domestic scenes as well as a few erotic works. In one, a man wears a devil mask to perform oral sex on a woman, so that the mask's tongue is engaged rather than the man's.

“It’s like the first time you see paisley. It’s like

Asked what's appealed to him about Almaraz's art, Marin says, “The mysteriousness of it. That's the thing that really attracted me to it. I appreciate sexy and edgy art — the themes [in his art] were mysterious and edgy. It makes me think about them a lot. The eroticism and the mysticism and the mythic vagueness of them.

“It's like the first time you see paisley,” he adds. “It's like, how am I supposed to look at this? That's Carlos. It's very visceral, the reaction you get when you look at his work.”

Included in the exhibit is the last piece Almaraz painted, which he finished in the days and hours before his death. There's a figure, presumably Almaraz himself, wearing a deer skull as a mask. “In Christianity,” Fox explains, “the deer antlers are a symbol of the Resurrection, because every year, a deer loses its antlers only to have them grow back bigger the following year. And so that cycle suggests that some kind of eternal or perpetual cycle.” The figure clutches a maraca in each hand and appears to be running or dancing from one side of the canvas to the other. It's not a mournful image — it's a joyful one. Perhaps shapeshifters like Almaraz don't die, they just move between realms once again.

PLAYING WITH FIRE: PAINTINGS BY CARLOS ALMARAZ | LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-Wilshire | Through Dec. 3 |

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