he new exhibition by Ruby Barrientos at Western Nevada College’s Bristlecone Gallery, Raíces (Roots), takes broad swings between intimate and historical zones, as well as political and ancestral ones. Barrientos is a first generation Salvadoran American, born in Reno after their parents emigrated here in the 1970s to escape the Salvadoran civil war. The work in this show reaches back across two ruptures—first, the rupture of emigration, and second, the rupture produced by the Spanish conquest of the Maya. Woven throughout the work are faces inspired by Maya sculpture and visual art, personages that Barrientos calls “Deities,” lured into existence in their sketchbooks and then expanded in scale in a variety of media.
A real shift in Barrientos’ work came through a series of encounters with Maya art and architecture. When they turned 30 in 2017, Barrientos took a trip to El Salvador, staying with family for about 10 days. It was partly a pilgrimage to visit the site where their father’s ashes had been spread—he died when they were 10 years old, and Barrientos continues to pay tribute to him in their artwork, incorporating his initials (MAB—Mario Antonio Barrientos) into their paintings. Barrientos hadn’t been planning on traveling to any of the Maya ruins in El Salvador, but the wife of a cousin—an artist—insisted. Seeing the ruins and displays of artifacts had a profound effect on them. Barrientos has gone on to research Maya visual culture, and to take opportunities to see ancient Maya artwork in Mexico and at an exhibit at the Met in New York.
“It’s hard to put into words the feeling that I got after these trips… they’ve had a very big effect on my growth, not only as an artist but also as a human,” Barrientos said.
One clear impact these encounters had on them as an artist was to expand the dimensions of their work. The faces of these Dieties loom over the viewer, some of them about as large as a human body, spanning the space from floor to ceiling. Barrientos, in some way, sees themself at the service of materializing them.
“Seeing how monumental the [Maya artifacts] were—there is a presence and power about them. And I definitely feel that connection within my work. They’re alive, and they want to exist in this realm—and not just at a small scale, at a big scale… they want to be amplified.”
Amplified and modernized—sometimes in terms of materials, as with the series of plexiglass faces cut by a CNC machine and illuminated by LED lights, glowing like signage for some phantasmal temple. And sometimes the modernization is in terms of message. “A lot of the meaning that I’ve been putting to these different deities has contemporary social relevancy,” Barrientos said. The red and black painting “El Dios De Revolución” was created during the period of the George Floyd protests. “That particular piece is a God that people can go to for refuge or prayer, to ask for strength to continue—specifically for people of color, who have been through so much oppression.”
A sculptural installation takes up a large section of the gallery floor. It’s the first sculpture Barrientos attempted, assisted by artist friends who helped them execute it. “I don’t know if you ever get this as an artist—but you have an inkling, an idea, and you’re like ‘I have to make this no matter what, I’m going to see this through’… and that’s what happened with that piece,” they said. Titled “Hijo De Su Bukele” (roughly: “Son of a Bukele”), it’s organized around a totemic figure, its stony face mounted atop a double cross that projects from base resembling a Maya stepped pyramid. The structure is defaced with graffiti, and the base and surrounding floor are littered with crumpled and torn printouts of news stories about the target of the piece, Nayib Bukele, the President of El Salvador—just elected for a second term, despite the fact that El Salvador’s Constitution has prohibited consecutive Presidential terms.
Bukele had the power to override the Constitution both through his authoritarian maneuverings (appointing judges to reinterpret constitutional articles), and through the popularity he’s amassed by reducing gang violence and murder in the country. After El Salvador’s largest gang, MS-13, murdered 87 people in three days during Bukele’s first term, Bukele used strong-arm tactics against gangs – beginning a wave of mass arrests that has sent more than 75,000 people to jail. In 2023, Bukele opened a “mega prison” in Tecaluca, San Vincente, built to house 40,000 inmates – the largest prison facility in Latin America. One of the crumpled news photos at the sculpture’s base shows hundreds of detainees compelled to sit, cross-legged, on the concrete floor of the facility. Stripped down to their white boxers, heads bowed, and packed shoulder-to-shoulder in a long rectangle of human flesh, they look less like a group of people and more like the scales of an enormous fish.
El Salvador’s murder rate (which used to be the highest in Central America) has indeed plummeted, but many innocent people have been swept up in the arrests with no recourse to due process, and there remains controversy over the degree to which the reduced murder rate is due to aggressive incarceration, and how much is due to backroom negotiations between the government and the gangs. The critique of Bukele articulated in the sculpture seems directed at the messianic aura Bukele (like most authoritarians) cultivates around himself—Barrientos has inscribed crucifixes and black rays over Bukele in the news photos, scratchy emanata that provide sarcastic glorification. Bukele’s tech-bro maneuver of making bitcoin legal tender in the country, and his jokey deflections of authoritarianism and civil rights violations on social media (on X/Twitter he declared himself the “coolest dictator”), are part of a wider global movement to rebrand authoritarianism as something fresh and putatively hip—as the sharp memories of the fascist disasters of WW2 become more remote and historicized. Hijo De Su Bukele projects a fierce skepticism toward Bukele’s self-cultivated visionary image, suggesting the sheen of high-tech competence—the iron fist with the tweeting thumb—is just the latest flavor of grift. The totemic figure invokes an ancient patrimony, besmeared with the detritus of today’s news. The patina of trash may be relatively insubstantial—likely to be swept by the winds of the next news cycle—but it’s also likely the winds will deliver yet another adornment of trash.
Past the very specific, very current politics of the piece, there’s something very personal in it, in the weighing of the ancient and ancestral against the distractions and vandalisms of the present. The show as a whole works its way through clutter and confusions of diaspora and assimilation, and the competing claims of language, religion and iconography. Barrientos doesn’t discount the ultimate spiritual dimensions of Christianity—“Everything connects to something, right?”—but they never clicked with it growing up, despite being raised in a devout Jehovah’s Witness household. They were brought to church three times a week, being taught English in school while the service was in Spanish, lacking the context to make sense of it all. So in the pews, on the backsides of their sisters’ church notes, they made drawings. Drawing can be a powerful force, a way of creating a little pocket of your own reality for yourself.
“I’ve intuitively created my own practice,” Barrientos explained. “I have my own altar, and I feel connected. There’s a knowing that I am connected to my ancestors. I pray to them, and I pray to the creator, I pray to the land. I’ve just created my own rituals and icons.” The route of imagination is the only route back, because of the violent cut of colonialism. “I haven’t been able to connect to what my ancestors were doing—I’ve had to create my own. But that feels a lot closer and right—rather than what I grew up being taught.”
Ruby Barrientos’ solo exhibition Raíces (Roots), presented by Capital City Arts Initiative, is on view in Western Nevada College’s Bristlecone Gallery, 2201 W. College Pkwy., Carson City, through April 12. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 8am-7pm. A reception is schedule for Friday, Feb. 23, 5-6:30 pm, with a brief talk at 5:30.
Ruby is also one of many artists in Upside Down Land, an immersive group installation at the Potentialist Workshop, 836 E. Second St., Reno Feb. 10- late August. Hours are 11am-6pm daily. Admission is $20.
They also have an exhibition coming up in July at Savage Mystic Gallery, 538 S. Virginia St. in Midtown Reno.
Photos: Kris Vagner
A note of disclosure: Ruby is a member of Double Scoop’s Board of Directors.