Lerma's paintings and collages, now on view at ArtZone 461, contain all the various threads of 60 years of art making in the Bay Area, including Abstract Expressionism, Funk Pop, and Conceptualism. The show is a slice of art history but it is also a tribute to the son of migrant workers who managed to live the life of an artist without compromising his integrity.
Born in Hollister in 1930, Lerma was a long time Californian, a Chicano and the first in his family to attend college.
His 4th grade teacher was the first to recognize his talent and from then on, he painted constantly, copying Renaissance art from 10-cent books. Later, in 1949, another teacher helped him to get a scholarship to the California School of Fine Arts (now SFAI).
The Korean War interrupted his schooling but when he returned to San Francisco, he continued his studies, studying under such Bay Area notables as Hassel Smith, Edward Corbett and James Budd Dixon.
The artist commented on his early years at the school as having, “…the most impact on my life and art. The art world of the fifties was free of the market and its temptations. There was a certain purity about it.”
He showed at the small galleries that came and went in the San Francisco of the 50’s – Sparas, the “Six” and even Ubu. He was part of a scene that included Alan Ginsberg's 1955's public reading of "Howl.' Lerma was part of the culture which valued making art over making a career as an artist.
“We were rebelling against some of the things that were going on in the city, “Lerma explains. “We wanted to be ourselves, to express things that were unique about the West Coast. We were not interested in following what was happening back East…It was a very spirited thing without much money... We were all outsider’s and we knew it, but we still wanted to show everybody what we were doing.”
Lerma lived the life of a Bohemian artist, painting as much as he could and not that interested in a career. At various times, he worked as a live-in baby sitter and later worked at Macy’s. There he collected what would have been swept out the door – paper, fabric, and iconic images.
Lerma experimented fearlessly across genres and avoided categorization. The retrospective shows a representative example of his work but the show is confusing because the works are not all hung chronologically. The strongest visual piece in the show is a figure drawing in black and white while his collages and assemblages reveal a quirky, questioning look at American icons such as Mickey Mouse and art goddess Frieda Kahlo. The abstract pieces are less successful, showing but not integrating influences as widely diverse as Jackson Pollock’s drip pieces and the stylized Zen landscapes of Mt. Tam. According to gallery owner, Steve Lopez, their matt surface is due to the use of inexpensive oil paint, a frugal choice made necessary by Lerma's finances.
Lerma’s fierce independence and refusal to play the art game have impacted his visibility. He lived his life as a seeker after his own truth, not looking for financial security or career success. He lived without compromising his principles and has never regretted it. For that reason alone, his art is worth recognizing and respecting. If Diaogenes were alive today and looking for an honest man, he would recognize a kindred spirit in José Ramón Lerma. (all images courtesy of the gallery).