The subject of Chuco looks into the camera with a raised eyebrow and a measure of attitude that seems to say, “This is who I am, where I’ve been. Take it or leave it.” Few of us have the courage to put that out there. We hide behind manners, groomed appearances and smiles, and try to please, to fit in, to present ourselves in relation to those we are with. When someone presents themselves without those masks, it can be startling. When they have a body inked with images, it’s even more so.
Born in New York City, Schwartz grew up in Eastchester. He came out to Denver in 1957 and has been there ever since. He began his art career as a sculptor, creating projected light pieces. By the time he was 28 years old, he had work in four museums and had obtained a measure of recognition. He decided to publish an art magazine that would help artists find grants and fellowships. Ocular was aimed at visual artists and, according to Eric, “was the most widely read art publication in the country in the late 1970s.”
After a stint working as a photographer for ad agencies, Schwartz found himself attracted to fine art photography—a natural progression to a medium where it’s all about using light and shadow to tell a story or express a point of view. As Eric puts it, “This is my way to express my feelings about life.”
Earlier this year, Denver’s Robischon Gallery presented its first solo exhibition of Eric’s photography, featuring seven, large-scale portraits of individuals boasting Chicano tattoos. It takes years to gain the trust of those in this particular LA subculture and Eric put in the time, slowly gaining enough trust to be allowed to carry out his project.
This primarily monochromatic tattoo style, featuring brief color images such as a brilliant blue butterfly or a red lipstick kiss, originated in prison and sometimes bears symbolic gang affiliation markers. Yet, the roots of the symbolism run much deeper, referencing historical Aztec warrior imagery and religious icons such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, classic Hollywood beauties such as Marilyn Monroe, and men as action heroes alongside personal references and symbols. Each man’s choices make a point, reveal an individual history. Beyond their fierce, no-shit, gaze a viewer glimpses men who have played their way through a tough hand and are much more complex than a first, perhaps prejudicial, glance reveals.
For more about Eric Schwartz and his work
(Images: Top left, Chuco/Warrior, pigment print on canvas on DiBond aluminum, 52"x40"; above right, Joseph Rodriguez, East LA, pigment print on canvas on DiBond aluminum, 52"x40")
-- Rosemary Carstens