The image of Carlos Villa's face that's now atop a 16-story building in the Tenderloin district — showing Villa fully tattooed from forehead to chin as he looks straight at the viewer — replicates an artwork in a major exhibit devoted to Villa that opened Friday in San Francisco. The same image is on the cover of the exhibit's catalog, and it hints at a now-venerated Villa trait: He took chances. With his art. With his gaze. With the scores of classes he taught and symposia he organized and the people he influenced.
By the time Villa died in 2013, he had amassed a lifetime of chances — and a lifetime of art, much of it acclaimed, but much of it unevenly seen, to the point that the name "Carlos Villa" may not register much beyond certain art circles. Who is Carlos Villa?
He's the visual artist who grew up in the Tenderloin, the son of immigrants from the Philippines, who decided art was his calling after serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War — and made it big a decade after graduating from what is now the San Francisco Art Institute but was then the California School of Fine Arts. Villa's story is so circuitous that "big" (which included marquee billing at a 1972 de Young Museum exhibit) happened often but inconsistently, as Villa changed his approach to art-making and incorporated everything from feathers to graph paper.
The Villa who we meet in "Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision," a sprawling exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, and in an accompanying exhibit at the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries ("Carlos Villa: Roots and Reinvention"), is a man who ultimately upended the art world for the better. Still, he never lived to see his own creations displayed as they are now in his native San Francisco, where "Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision" arrives after an acclaimed run at New Jersey's Newark Museum of Art. (The two San Francisco exhibits comprise the single Newark Museum of Art exhibit.)
Here's something to think about: Nine years after his death, Villa is the first Filipino American artist to get a major museum retrospective. A collaboration with the Smithsonian, "Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision" is a historic exhibit that's worth attending for that reason alone. But the bigger reason is this: Villa made unique, thought-provoking art — especially in the 1970s and 1980s when he was in his 30s and 40s and tattooed photo printouts of his face; created coats and cloaks of feathers and paint that, when stretched out in their fullness, were like mystical shrouds of otherworldly plumage; and made constellations of abstract paintings that featured bones, hair, blood and other offerings that twisted, curved and circumnavigated the canvases with a hypnotic energy that matched Villa's own.
So who is Villa? To those who knew him, he was a risk-taker who, yes, constantly searched for new ways of creating art, but who searched way beyond art for inspiration — including history, politics and the personal. An encyclopedic array of ideas, subjects and people are indirectly embedded in Villa's art, and directly highlighted in his life's timeline on display.
There to see: The history of Filipino immigration to America, which included U.S. government policies that shoehorned men from the Philippines into labor jobs and women from joining them in immigration. But also there by name: the Belgian surrealist René Magritte and the Australian shamans called kurdaitcha, both of whom influenced Villa's paper-pulp-and-feathers shoes called "Artist's Feet." And there as well by name: the French artist Henri Matisse, whose vestments for a French church influenced Villa's majestic 1971 work "Painted Cloak."
In the 1990s, when Villa was an entrenched art instructor at the San Francisco Art Institute, he organized a series of symposia that took on the title "Worlds in Collision," and that featured a range of artists and academics, including Angela Davis, bell hooks and the performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Villa did his own performance art, which is detailed at the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries, where visitors see revealing photographs of Villa's 1980 work "Ritual." In that work, Villa walks nakedly around a venue to make art with his body — accompanied by music, including saxophone by the acclaimed artist Leo Valledor, who was Villa’s cousin and a major influence.
In the 1970s, Villa lived the symposia's ideals through his tattoo printouts and "Painted Cloak," which is by far the most arresting work at the Asian Art Museum. What can you say about a cloak that's full of feathers, hand prints, semicircular patterning and a taffeta lining that make it look like a beautifully winged being? Yes, you can imagine "Painted Cloak" flying away! And, yes, you can imagine wearing it! And, yes, you can imagine some high-end fashion designer seeing it for the first time and paying Villa hundreds of thousands of dollars to make "Painted Cloak" (now owned by SFMOMA) into the hot, new sartorial statement, with Villa's name on every cloak!
But here's a detail about Villa that will become apparent to anyone who gets to know his work: Villa wasn't in it for the fame — at least when it came to putting his name on art. As I walked through the galleries of "Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision" and "Carlos Villa: Roots and Reinvention," I didn't see a single "Carlos Villa" signature on his art. I thought how appropriate that was. Villa's works draw on so many sources for inspiration that he seemingly thought of his art as a collective output — reclaiming his Filipino heritage and acknowledging the multitude of influences on his life, including jazz, African sculpture and rituals, art from Oceania, and being a student and then beloved instructor at San Francisco's most vaunted art school.
"When he was at the San Francisco Art Institute after serving in the Korean War, he went to one of his painting teachers and asked, 'Where can I find information about Filipino American art?' And his teacher said, 'There is none to find,'" said Trisha Lagaso Goldberg, who along with Mark Dean Johnson, a Bay Area art professor and the exhibit's co-curator, and artist Sherwin Rio co-edited the exhibit's incisive catalog. "Carlos was a local-town hero. ... And we really wanted to share who Carlos really was."
By the end of his life, Villa was known as much for his pedagogical work as for his art. Both meant the world to him, and an entire gallery at the Asian Art Museum is devoted to the work of Villa’s Filipino students who went on to make their own indelible art. Among the standouts is "TNT Traysikel" by Michael Arcega and Paolo Asuncion, which is a customized motorcycle and Filipino sidecar with flashing lights, functioning karaoke system and signage that says, "POSITIVELY FILIPINOS ALLOWED."
Carlos Villa didn't live to see these two exhibitions and he didn't live to see the public, high-in-the-sky version of "Tat2" that's in the Tenderloin at 350 Turk St. A former student of Villa's, Mario Ayala, made that work last year as a tribute to Villa.
It's just a short walk from 350 Turk St. to the Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries, but in between are the Tenderloin blocks where Villa grew up. Now, he's returned to the neighborhood — both on a 16-story building and in exhibits that brim with the kind of prestige, celebration and attention to artistic detail that he undoubtedly dreamed about all his life.
Saturday at 3:30 p.m. gather for a procession in front of the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin St.), followed by a 4-6 p.m. reception (remarks at 4:30 p.m., including a poem by Oscar Peñaranda) at the SFAC Main Gallery (401 Van Ness, Suite 126).
IF YOU GO
"Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision"
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
When: Through Oct. 24
Contact: (415) 581-3500, asianart.org
"Carlos Villa: Roots and Reinvention"
Where: San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, ground floor, S.F.
When: Through Sept. 3
Contact: (415) 252-2244, sfartscommission.org