Roberto Gil de Montes The Light Out There

Farewell, 2023, is currently displayed at Kurimanzutto gallery in New York City.

The warmth and sunshine of a paradise envelops Roberto Gil de Montes’s painting Farewell on display at Kurimanzutto Gallery in New York City. Standing in front of it, the Mexican artist’s eyes range quietly over the three male figures he depicts: one faces us engaging in a play of counter-gaze, one has his back turned to us and looks at the open horizon and a third one serves as the onlooker of the other two. Gil de Montes points to the person in the middle and then to the distant horizon. “He’s there, but his future is out there, and there’s light out there.”

Mexican artist Roberto Gil de Montes photographed on the High Line in November 2023.

“Out there” is not only the horizon but the distant La Peñita de Jaltemba Nayarit, a hidden gem on Mexico’s Pacific Coast where Gil de Montes moved in 2006. “I didn’t think I would move there permanently. It just happened.” When his gallery of 25 years closed in Los Angeles, Mexico felt familiar for the Guadalajara-born artist and the remoteness of the place sparked his imagination. “The first time I went there, there were no phones or television. People want to go to places where they can be in touch, but I thought it was perfect.” The change of scenery made him shift perspective, drawing him to a simpler way of life and to people from a town more primitive. It also prompted a change in his colour palette that favoured tropical hues. “It’s brighter there. And I’m surrounded by blue. The ocean is less than a block away from my studio and sometimes I’ll walk and hang out there.”

Gil de Montes in front of the painting Interview with the Blue Deer II, 2023, an accidental self-portrait.

Next to the ocean is an old cemetery that Gil de Montes often integrates into his paintings, as seen in Interview with the Blue Deer II, a symbolic self-portrait. The painting depicts a blue deer standing with its head held high and majestic antlers on full display in the middle of a cemetery that commands beautiful views of the ocean. That it came to be a self-portrait is quite accidental. The story starts when a writer from the New York Times traveled to town to interview him. “I was working on the idea of painting a deer when the writer said, ‘Take me to the cemetery. I’ve seen it in your work and you talk about it.’” Gil de Montes took him, thinking it was at once odd and interesting that the photographer asked to shoot his portrait there. “I mean, I didn’t mind having it,” he says amused and continues, “but I thought it would be funny if I called the painting Interview with the Blue Deer, meaning I’m the one being interviewed in the cemetery. So, it became a more personal thing.”

The Disciple, 2023, a painting with motifs borrowed from Huichol iconography – the deer, the peyote cactus, the turtle and the sun.
Marcelo, 2023, portrait of Marcelo López a Huichol Indian.

His recurring blue deer motif is drawn from Huichol iconography, where it symbolizes a guide or messenger between the worlds of mortals and deities. Gil de Montes has been fascinated with Huichol Indians ever since he was a young boy. “The first time I saw a Huichol, he was crossing the street, and I asked my grandma, ‘Who’s that? How come he’s dressed that way?’ And my grandma said, ‘Well, he’s an Indian.’” That encounter immediately sparked his interest. He fetches his iPhone that has been buzzing silently for a while and scrolls to find a picture of Marcelo López, a Huichol Indian whose portrait he painted recently. “The outfits they wear are very special.” With an expression of delight and appreciation, his gaze settles on the embroidered little blue deer on Lopez’s perfectly crisp linen white shirt and then shifts to the highly ornamental belt that trails around his waist. “They create beautiful yarn paintings and beadwork,” but what casts a shadow on all that beauty is the unfortunate loss of some customs, as many Huichol individuals come into the cities and abandon some of their traditions.

Roberto Gil de Montes and Marcelo Lopez collaborated in creating eleven beaded coverings for Pre-Hispanic clay objects.

Gil de Montes came up with a way of bridging past and present by inviting López to apply his beadwork to a selection of abandoned ceramic pre-Columbian shards that the artist has been collecting ever since he moved to La Peñita. Violent rainfalls would reveal a bounty of the ceramic pieces on the streets that the artist would joyfully collect. “I told Marcelo, ‘I have this feeling that when I die, people are not going to value these shards the way I do, so I was thinking that you could do your art on the piece. These are your ancestors, and you’re separated from them by like 1100 years; so, it might be really interesting.’” López took a while to answer, thinking that it would be wise to consult a Shaman first. The Shaman approved, and López beaded eleven pieces. Two of them are in the archive section of the show, but Gil de Montes, dissatisfied, shakes his head. “There is a face on the other side. And this is a body, like a torso. So, they should be shifted.”

Boy Deer, 2023.

Some of the figures in his paintings are crowned with a deer headpiece, as seen in the painting Boy Deer, which depicts a male figure lying sideways, his body partly immersed in a river. The headpiece is inspired by the Yaqui Deer Dance, traced back to pre-Columbian times, when the deer was a symbol of power and nobility. The dance is believed to have been originally performed as a hunting ritual, intended to honor the spirits of the animals. However, what prompted the painting is what Gil de Montes labels one of the most shameful and dark chapters in the history of Mexico, the Iguala mass kidnapping when 43 male students were kidnapped and mistakenly murdered. “For the longest time, those parents wanted to know what happened to their kids. I just thought that it was heartbreaking to know this. I couldn’t get it off my mind. I just couldn’t do it. They say they burned them and threw the ashes in a river. But I couldn’t do a painting of what happened to them,” he confided with an air of straightforwardness. “Sometimes when I do that, I almost think that I should hide it or something. It’s like I don’t want to share this. But I’m more open to just sharing everything I do.”

Gil de Montes, on the High Line, going over his sketchbook.
Gil de Montes working on an ink drawing of a person dressed as a jaguar.
Peculiar Intimacy, 2023, a Halloween inspired painting.

As a diversion, he walks to the High Line, New York’s elevated pedestrian park, where he decides to work on a drawing of a figure dressed in a jaguar suit. He skilfully traces fine lines on the jaguar giving a wild roar. “There is a city in Mexico where they have a festival where a lot of people get dressed as jaguars.” This old ritual takes places every year in Chilapa, Mexico, to ensure a good harvest. A friendlier jaguar takes center stage in the mildly surreal painting titled Peculiar Intimacy, influenced by a vague memory of a Halloween party. In this recollection, a friend, following a festive night, woke up next to someone dressed in a jaguar pajama. “If I have a second thought that says ‘this is silly,’ I just push it aside and keep on doing it because it takes a long time to create a big painting.”

If I have a second thought that says, ‘this is silly,’ I just push it aside and keep on doing it, because it takes a long time to do a big painting.

Roberto Gil de Montes
The Red Shirt, 2023, is an example of a masked figure, another recurrent motif in the artist's work.

The figure in the jaguar suit, in an act of intimacy, removes his mask, while three other figures in the show set a completely different stage, each wearing domino masks for various reasons. “The most obvious reason is that you’re hiding, but it’s also a way of becoming somebody else, akin to the theater.” With engaging frankness, he suggests that perhaps subconsciously, the masks are connected to the fact that he is gay. “When I was a kid, I had to hide it.”

School Days, 1990,

A painting depicting a group of children dressed in uniform black robes and red and black pointed hats.

Figure drawing on the High Line

Gil de Montes paints mostly men but sometimes draws oddly geometric feminine figures struggling for gender definition.

Ana, 2023,

A portrait painted from memory of the artist’s boys school classmate, who later transitioned.

His masked characters navigate their lives, concealing their true selves, while others courageously reveal their authentic identities. Take Jay, for instance, a very effeminate classmate in his boys’ school who endured bullying from everyone. “The teacher wouldn’t do anything. He would just say, ‘Quiet! Quiet!’ and the kids would keep on picking on this guy. I’m sure he felt it, but he would just disregard it.” Years later, Gil de Montes encountered Jay at a party but didn’t recognize him. Jay had transitioned and reintroduced himself as Ana. Reflecting on this encounter, Gil de Montes decided to paint Jay’s portrait from memory. “I wish I had defended him,” he says in front of the painting, which evidently breeds conflicting emotions.

In the archive section of the show, Gil de Montes’s eyes slowly wander around the room, pausing for a moment on the 1990 painting School, which depicts a group of school children dressed in uniform black robes and red and black pointed hats. Embedded into the frame are pieces from wooden toy snakes, popular among young children in Mexico at the time. Gil de Montes attended a Catholic school taught by nuns in Guadalajara, and although not religious, he has always been fascinated by the narratives and rituals associated with Catholicism.

When he was 10, his family moved to the US. There his parents enrolled his brothers in a Catholic school, but he steadfastly refused to go. “I stopped being religious when I found out that I was gay. In church, they said that it was a sin, and I thought to myself, … really? This is all sin, and I’m not accepted, and everything that I am is wrong?! I said no. I couldn’t have possibly wanted this for me. I told my parents, ‘To begin with, school starts in church. I’m not gonna go there. And second, they don’t have art.’ They said, ‘OK, go wherever you want to go.’”

Obscure, 2023, is a painting featuring a painterly screen, an example of a motif the artist frequently incorporates into his works.

To suggest a barrier to understanding, the artist incorporated a painterly veil in front of Ana’s portrait and in Obscure. Gil de Montes first employed this motif in his portraiture during the AIDS crisis and then revisited it during the COVID crisis. “I felt that there was a separation with people who had contracted the virus and were afraid to touch each other.” However, various other barriers exist. “Some are invisible, and some are transparent.” In terms of painting, he enjoys weaving those screens which are informed by a painting style called Pattern and Decoration that flourished in ’80s in New York.

It is at this moment in the conversation that Eddie Dominguez, his partner of 48 years, enters the gallery. This benevolent personality has a clear-cut, business-like mind and oversees that aspect of the artist’s work. Things have truly accelerated since his presentation at the 2022 Venice Biennale, The Milk of Dreams, curated by Cecilia Alemani. There, Gil del Montes overheard Dominguez talking to a woman who was saying that it was about time he got recognized. “But I told Eddie, ‘It’s not that I was not recognized; I just wasn’t recognized at this level. When I was in school, one of my teachers, Matsumi Kanamitsu, told us, ‘If you graduate from school, 15 years later, you’re still painting or doing your art, maybe you have a chance.’ So, I felt like a successful artist because I was still making art.”

Gil de Montes working on a figure of a man lying on his side.

New York City, 2023. All photos © Alexia Antsakli Vardinoyanni