Since the dawning of time, art has become a way of representing an era, a generation, a culture or an event. Often times, as seen through the Mona Lisa, Whistlers Mother or American Gothic, the most captivating art is revealed when a sense of the artist lives within the painting. Ricardo Peñalver (1937-1995), best known for his work Seated Man Dancing, not only lives within his art, he dances!
Ricardo Santana Villenueva Peñalver (Pen-yaal-vair) was born April 4, 1937 in San Antonio, Texas, the tenth of twelve children. His ancestors were Spanish immigrants with a creative history; artistic endeavors were pursued by several of his older siblings, this inspired Ricardo as a youngster. In the 50s, the Peñalvers moved to Southern California. The 60s found Ricardo seeking a forum for his artistic energy.
San Francisco Bay Area was a magnet for artists of all types with its
open attitudes toward diverse lifestyles and alternative thinking. In
1964, Ricardo struck out on his own to make his mark and moved to San
Francisco. A year later, sensing the need for formal education he headed
to New York City where he studied at Fordham University and was involved
in some of the citys early social programs under Mayor Lindsay.
San Francisco was also the epicenter of the musical revolution during this period of freedom, self-discovery and indulgence. Groups like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother & The Holding Company with Janis Joplin made the Bay Area the hippest place to be. Musicians Luis Gasca, Carlos Santana and Mongo Santamaria added to the mix, their Latin rhythms warming the chill of the night air along the San Francisco Bay. Leading artists on the jazz circuit performed nightly at local clubs. One might find Cal Tjader playing or Stanley Turrentine gently blowing at The Great American Music Hall while the legendary Miles Davis' trumpet pierced the smoke-filled lounge at Keystone Korner. Momentous occasions, like Miles April 1974 gig, were promoted at the street level by radio, word of mouth and, of course, posters which were prominently displayed in store windows and affixed to walls, poles and billboards throughout the Bay Area. The work of this ubiquitous and dynamic young artist was featured on numerous show bills during this enchanting and tempestuous period.
In May of 1974, Ricardo met Alexa Bryson, the young woman who would become his lifelong companion. Theirs was a romance borne out of a shared passion for art, dance and idealism. Between Ricardos love for Alexa and his activism there never seemed to be enough time for his art. Often the driven, spirited artist would lament, "all I want to do is sit and paint".
Fate dealt the couple a tragic and defining blow in the summer of 1979. In a senseless act of violence with catastrophic consequences, Peñalver was shot while being robbed. Ironically, the artist who deplored violence while devoting his energies to peace, dance and art was rendered a paraplegic. He remained wheelchair bound until his death in July of 1995.
Ricardo referred to August 11, 1979 as his "other birthday". He was forced to re-learn the simplest of tasks. Losing the use of his dominant (right) hand for an extended period subsequent to his injury compelled Ricardo to teach himself to paint with his left hand. His former way of life was lost to him forever! No longer able to dance or maintain his previous level of activism, only one channel remained as an outlet for his boundless passion, his art. Thus began an astounding and prodigious outpouring of remarkable art. In later years, Ricardo would say that the devastation of his paralysis had "confined him to his destiny".
First Day on a Wheelchair (October 1979), is a touching and graphic testimony to the challenges of his redefined reality. Pain was his constant companion. He could only work for brief periods before succumbing to his physical limitations. Often he worked urgently, quickly, as if seeking to pack as much expression into his work as he could while coping with the pain. If he could not get to his easel quickly enough, he would grab an envelope and pen to sketch a new study piece. His need to paint was so intense one feels he would have scratched his art on a wall, if necessary!
There were dark times, time of loneliness, regret and despair. " Be careful what you wish for" Ricardo would whisper, remembering his cry that he only wanted to Sit and Paint. Works done during this period of rehabilitation and adjustment are stirring creations that express the ineffable sadness of all humans thwarted in their desires. As powerful as these works are, their counterparts are their equals. The artistic range exhibited during the dramatically different life stages and circumstances of this artist is phenomenal.
On December 8, 1980, a little over a year after Peñalver began his long recovery, the artist was horrified and deeply saddened by another senseless tragedy, the assassination of former Beatle John Lennon. As a tribute to the fallen artist, he painted more than a dozen Lennon images over the course of the ensuing month and a half. Perhaps, best capturing Lennons spirit in a watercolor done on the very day he was gunned down in front of The Dakota Apartments in New York City.
Like a flower to the sunlight, Ricardo struggled to regain the vitality and joy of his former life. Following his paralysis, for many years Ricardo could only work on a small scale. The wheelchair had made the strikingly handsome artist "a short guy" by his own admission. In the late-eighties, his friend and painting companion, Fernando Duarte fashioned brush extensions for Ricardo enabling him to paint on a large scale again. Seated Man Dancing is a product of this ingenuity and an articulation of Peñalvers personal renaissance. This work is the voice of his resiliency and indomitable spirit. In it, Peñalver expresses the sheer joy and precious nature of life itself! It is his declaration of ultimate triumph over enormous physical and psychological obstacles. The painting Fernandos Wings is a joyous tribute to his protégé whose ingenuity allowed this dynamic artist to unleash his artistic passion; to once again create sizable and more complex works.
The unique signature of Peñalvers work is distinctive with multiple repetitive themes. Ever present is the irony and interplay of dramatic movement, energy, balance and equilibrium. One also observes strong depictions of wisdom gained from his juxtaposition of freedom and confinement.
Peñalver uses recurrent objects and subjects to symbolize the dominant themes; dancers for movement; the spinal column and central nervous system, often balanced on wheels, for energy; jugglers, gumballs and spheres of all kinds representing balance and equilibrium. His sense of humor and facetiousness bring us clowns, while owls sagely observe. Peñalvers fascination with owls and all of the mythical, magical qualities attributed to them surfaced in his work in 1980, the year following his spinal cord injury. The owls he created in his studio became the artists companions and were a constant source of amusement, comfort and inspiration.
Conversely, his monks have become symbolic of the lonesome personal struggle that inevitably accompanies paraplegia and its life-altering consequences.
Artifacts from his surroundings frequently appear in his paintings; the deer foot stool, the brown shawl, the red vase, birds of paradise, the matadors hat and, of course, his wheels! Then there are numerous dancing figures, sometimes accompanied by torsos with No Arms-No Legs, which are significant because the artist would often laughingly proclaim, "No Arms-No Legs, Cant Paint Cant Dance". This phrase underscored his gratitude for the gift he was spared.
Peñalvers work is also characterized by his brilliant use of color and texture, combining several media in most of his paintings. His shadowing techniques and delicate use of watercolors are magnificent!
His art is testimony to his wit and playful sense of humor yet it elevates our consciousness and opens our minds to a universe full of possibilities. It depicts with poignancy the fragility of the human form and the pain associated with permanent disability, but most importantly the immeasurable glory one finds in the resiliency of the human spirit. The art of Ricardo Peñalver is certain to arouse great emotion in those who study this important body of work.
All works copyright ©2002 Alexa Bryson Art LLC. Republication or redistribution of content, including by framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Alexa Bryson Art.
Contact Alexa Bryson Art