Art for autonomy

David Zamora Casas is working on a collage piece. He has stuck a line of marijuana papers across a print of The Virgin de Guadalupe and placed his voter’s registration card in the center. He started on this latest piece in artistic retaliation to “the stupidity of that Arizona law.” It’s called “Show Me Your Papers” and perfectly exemplifies the wit and visual play of this self-taught San Antonio painter.

Casas’s studio, festooned with kitsch figurines and celebratory costumes acquired at his favorite resale shop Retro Mex, looks like a ropa usada version of that waiting room for the dead in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice. His canvases of Catholic imagery enmeshed with contemporary pop icons and phallic symbols are arresting and, to some, upsetting. “The other night a lady came in and saw the stuff and started to cry she was so moved. Another woman walked in, looked around, and just took off.”

His self-portraits and homages to dead friends are steeped in a highly sexualized spiritualism aimed at broadening the scope of Latino culture as well as sexual identity. “If the only images we see are stereotypes, then how does that build any esteem?” His studio has a new wheelchair ramp and warning sign directed at parents who might bring in their kids. He says he doesn’t merely want to be tolerated. He wants to be understood.

Casas’s work is not for everyone, but it just might include everything. His canvases, which mesh pre-Colombian myth with post-colonial motif, vibrate with color and bits of found bric-a-brac. There is a fascinating piece on the wall that incorporates fideo boxes with Mayan symbolism, and there is a Jesus statue that has been masked and made into an indigenous totem. Casas incorporates gifts into his art all the time. “I inherited a treasure trove of vintage porn from a gentleman who died,” he says, showing me a photograph of a young man pleasuring himself with a Pepsi bottle. “He got it from someone else. You know, the AIDS pandemic has played a major part in my work.”

Though some might consider his work Outsider Art, Casas thinks that’s all bull. “I know some terrible artists that get in shows because they say nothing and have a degree.” When Casas considers his art, he thinks back to the shamans and to the first people that started painting on cave walls with whatever they had at hand: “These people didn’t want to be the next Andy Warhol. They had something to document.”

In the late 1980’s and early ‘90s, Casas definitely had something to express. He was young, “overcome with sexual feeling and kept from this beautiful thing because of this disease no one knew anything about.” Texas sodomy laws were still on the books and his friends were dying of AIDS. He shaved his head; he shaved his whole body. And he painted a portrait of this sorrow and sacrifice. “It helped me not to have a nervous breakdown.”

Like his shamanic precursors, any self-sacrifice goes toward healing the land. Casas’s work is no indulgent exercise in art pour l’art. For Casas, being an artist leads naturally to the responsibility of advocacy and protest. “I find it upsetting that I am one of the few artists going to political rallies,” he says. Kellen McIntyre, executive director of the Bilh Haus Arts, sees Casas’s work in line with the venerable tradition of protest art and finds his concerns — which have always included immigration rights, border issues, and gay marriage — as particularly relevant. “The story he has been telling for 15 years is the story of today,” McIntyre says.

So, are other artists apolitical?

No. Just “fucking lazy!” the shaman of the San Antonio art scene doesn’t mince words. “I’m not the most political person, but this is about my rights.”

Casas — whose work extends to installations and murals as well as performance pieces — is wholly dedicated to his craft, sometimes painting till five or six in the morning, then sleeping in his studio, and waking up to paint again. His last show at the Bihl Haus Arts, “Ancient Guardians of the Sky,” was the most successful one-man show the group has had to date: “Though don’t ask me where the money went. Jewelry maybe.”

David Rubin, the Brown Foundation Curator of Contemporary Art for the San Antonio Museum of Art, which currently houses two of Casas’ paintings, sees the artist as “pretty much an original” with a strong ability to integrate his life and art totally. “Many artists from Marcel Duchamp to Yoko Ono have achieved this kind of integration … where painting, sculpture, installation, or performance are just extensions of the artist’s being. David has achieved this kind of integration, and I’m sure he is all the happier for it, while we, the viewers, get to enjoy the fruits of his creativity.”

Casas, who dons a Dali-esque moustache and lives by the Ministry song “Everyday is Halloween,” refuses to see his work as outside of ceremony. “A female friend, a woman I’d known for 30 years, told me once, ‘Every brush stroke is a spell, an incantation.’ I believe that it is magic.” •