No one had to convince José Vera that David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974) is an important artist. Vera grew up in Mexico City, an artistically rich place that embraced that country’s native sons and daughters, including Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo and José Clemente Orozco.
Vera, who owns and manages the Jose Vera Gallery in Eagle Rock, is opening a show of Siqueiros original prints on Saturday, Sept. 4. The gallery and the Autry also are joining forces for an artists panel discussion, “A Print Dialogue: Siqueiros and the Graphic Arts,” scheduled for Sept. 18 at the Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock.
“Siqueiros appeals to me more politically than anything else,” said Vera, who began collecting in the 1990s but has only had the gallery for about five years. “And his art, of course.”
Vera in his youth had many friends in the Mexican student movement of the 1960s, which like others around the world agitated for more openness in politics and more freedom of expression — actions that in Mexico resulted in significant government repression. Siqueiros, ever the revolutionary, was both an inspiration and a fellow traveler.
“I like all the muralists,” Vera said, “but Siqueiros to me meant more because he was actually getting arrested, just like my friends that would get hurt in the demonstrations or whatever they were involved in. To know that this guy would actually be there and risk getting arrested … he was standing with the people and walking with them.”
In his other life, Vera works as a legal advocate defending the rights of the disabled and of immigrants. He went to the Peoples College of Law, which also trained Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, attorney Meredith Brown, and activist Angela Sanbrano. All were part of a generation concerned with protecting the rights of los marginados, the underprivileged. Vera saw the beginnings of non-profit groups like CARECEN, which for more than 30 years has advocated for the rights of Salvadoran and other Central American immigrants in the United States.
“I write federal appeals briefs for court and prepare testimony for difficult cases,” Vera said. “I wrote motions to set aside criminal convictions that violated people’s rights.… I believe in justice and I don’t settle for just doing a mediocre job.”
Vera’s initial artistic interest leaned toward the decorative arts and the Arts and Crafts movement, but as he explored this world further and attended estate sales and antiques auctions, he focused more and more on art — especially art with a connection to his Mexican roots and his political sensibilities.
“Of course, Arts and Crafts was a worldwide movement,” he said. “And because of the politics, I was driven to it, too. Because I know the meaning (it had to) the people that started this sort of craftsmanship, with the things being handmade and the worker showing his or her pride in a good item.”
Still, Vera isn’t exclusive about his interests. If he likes a piece and can afford it, he doesn’t hesitate to buy it. And he also loves to find treasures at swap meets.
“I love to rescue things that other people throw away,” he said.
As for Siqueiros, Vera’s collection grew organically. At first, he had posters, some of which he still owns and hangs in his own home and office for their personal and sentimental value. But he knew the time would come when this artist would claim his place among art luminaries in the United States. And Vera wanted to be ready.
“I knew what happened to his mural in Olvera Street,” he said. “I said, ‘You know what? Siqueiros is going to be a big hit one day. And I want to have the biggest collection in L.A., if possible.’ … I was lucky that, yeah, things started to happen here.”
When he saw the interest around the various events scheduled this year around Siqueiros, including the Autry’s exhibition opening Sept. 24 that focuses on his censored mural América Tropical and the Museum of Latin American Art’s landscape exhibition that opens Sept. 12, Vera decided perhaps it was time to bring out the works he has. There were more than 40 original prints and lithographs, which became the core of Confronting Revolution: A Siqueiros Aesthetic, on view until Oct. 27. And as friends and associates heard of what he was doing, they gave him more works to display on consignment. On Friday, Vera was conditioning a space in the back of the gallery to display the extra works.
“They more or less came out of the woodwork,” said Jennifer Gutierrez Morgan, who is curating the exhibition and helps manage the gallery.
Vera sees his pursuits in art as integral to the work he does and the ideals that guide him. Art, to him, is more than just a pretty picture.
“Today, Mexico is still a struggling country, to find that real true meaning of democracy,” he said. “I think by having exhibits or rescuing works of art that are meaningful to the community, we still keep all that alive.”