How could this be? After reading “Carlos Villa and the Integrity of Spaces,” edited by American Studies Theodore S. Gonzalves, I was left wondering why, until this collection of writings, there had not been any significant acknowledgement of artist and teacher Carlos Villa in Asian American and mainstream art history scholarship.
Born in San Francisco in 1936, Villa has been a practicing visual artist for over half a century and his work has been exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the INTAR Gallery in New York, the American Academy in Rome, Bellas Artes in Havana, among a long list of museums, galleries and public spaces. He has received prestigious awards for his art, including grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a legend among students he has taught at San Francisco Art Institute, the University of San Francisco, California College of Arts and Crafts, Mills College, San Francisco and Sacramento State Universities, and among the Bay Area arts community. Despite the groundbreaking nature of his work and the influence he has had on artists and the arts as a whole, the official pages of history have been blank.
The pages of Gonzalves’ small collection are packed not only with a representative sample of Villa’s work, but with a fascinating mix of writing that seems to capture Villa’s different facets. Gonzalves opens the book with his own “C.V. The Course of a Life,” which presents the major periods of Villa’s life, then follows it up with “Diaspora, Memory and the Culturalist Imagination,” in which Margo Machida analyzes Villa’s artistic process, his persistent attempts at letting “the Filipino come [into]” his work. Moira Roth’s “Villa’s Worlds in Collision: A Study in Four Parts, 1967-2007,” casts Villa as a catalyst who produced “art actions” that brought together the arts, politics, academe and the street to explore questions of identity.
What is most enjoyable about this collection is that it mixes these scholarly perspectives with poetry and more personal accounts. “An Open Letter” from David A.M. Goldberg reflects on Villa’s influence, how he was “among the first of the O.G.s” who “schooled me on how the knowledge coded in the streets—known in more theoretical/academic circles as Everyday Life—could outweigh ‘official’ knowledge with each and above all else, style.” This is followed by a brief exchange between Paul Karlstrom and Carlos Villa, “Tagging the Sistine Chapel.” In this conversation, one not only understands the artist’s prestige, but also sees that the man has not lost his grounding.
Gonzalves and the authors in this collection provide an invaluable service by filling in the absence with their documents of Villa’s work, not only as a visual artist, but also as a teacher, community resource and producer. Now, one hopes that this spurs Asian Americanists and art historians to integrate Villa and more cultural workers of color into their respective canons.