Mario Uribe

Round About

Artist Mario Uribe on Zen and the art of circling

By Gretchen Giles

“I do circles almost every day,” says artist Mario Uribe. Sitting in the echoing white-walled space of Santa Rosa’s American School of Japanese Arts, where he is in the middle of installing a new show, Uribe has a tanned hand resting gently on three large binders. Secured within each are hundreds of pages of circles, each one drawn with the swift heavy beauty of Japanese ink and brush.

“I think that if you look at them, if you thumb through this,” Uribe says, speaking with calm distinctness, “you’ll see that they’re all incredibly unique. Each one is a different moment, a very unique moment, and it’s a unique moment in our lives.

“And that’s exactly who I was at that moment.”

Not surprisingly, Uribe’s show is called “In the Circle,” and while there are many geometric shapes ennobling the walls, Uribe’s past work has prominence. A mild man with white hair, brown skin, and kind, humorous eyes, Uribe seems himself to be happily surprised by a time in his life when he’s about to be married and have a new show open both on the same weekend. A pacifist whose anti-war stand is evident in his work, Uribe has recently relocated to Sonoma County from San Diego, where he made a name for himself for both the beauty and the symbolism of his work.

“I do lots of different kinds of art,” Uribe continues, his brown eyes gentling behind his glasses. Indeed, his expertise seems to include all media, from animation, to ceramics, to landscape painting, to constructions, to printmaking. One of his ongoing projects has been to create art for hospitals. “Even though I make a living as an artist,” he emphasizes, “my living comes from doing work that I consider to be healing.

“I’ve done many different things,” he continues, “but I think that during the last 10 years my art has changed more and more to encompass social subjects. I just feel a very strong responsibility.”

His most controversial piece came about in response to the Persian Gulf War. Finding himself horribly enthralled with the process leading up to the war, Uribe and others enlarged an image of Japanese brush-master Kazuaki Tanahashi’s bold brushwork with the inscription “What If We Go to War?” onto a billboard in downtown San Diego. When the war finally hit, and Americans became engaged in “collateral damage” and “friendly fire”–two of Uribe’s ironically favorite euphemisms–he cloaked himself in black (“I had seen a few too many Ninja movies,” he chuckles), and crouched by the billboard. His intention was to splash it with red paint, but there were too many people around at night in that drug-dealing part of town. Instead, he waited for full daylight, boldly climbed the billboard, and dragged a can of thick red paint across its motto. When local media called Uribe to tell him that his work had been vandalized, he corrected them. The work had merely been changed.

The Gannett Co., which owned the billboard, replaced the message that very day.

Uribe’s most startling Gulf War pieces are two paintings that hang one above the other. The top canvas depicts a life-sized rendering of a faceless pilot, the first American to drop a bomb on Iraq during the conflict. Inscribed beside the forward thrust of his right leg are the words “It’s a great day to be an American”–words that Uribe, in shock, copied from an interview on CNN with the young man who had made that excited pronouncement. Below the pilot’s image is an erotic painting of a nude lipsticked woman lying on her back, her breasts raised.

“It’s called ‘Great Day, Great Lay,'” Uribe says dryly. “I just wrote down [what the pilot said], and I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. And then the Tailhook scandal happened soon after that, and my impression from this guy was that he almost had an erection from dropping these bombs–he was so excited–and then I just sort of put the two together, because it’s a mentality. And part of that mentality is a macho thing. They feel like they’re . . . well, I don’t know. I don’t understand it. But I just sort of imagine, that that’s why they feel that they can abuse women, to play those macho games that set up this kind of dichotomy.

“The idea is that there are a lot of underlying subtle things in our culture, in our society, that we’re all responsible for, and that help or lead to the ignorance of war and dropping bombs.”

But Uribe has been sustained by more than antagonism. Influenced by Tanahashi, Uribe has participated in four events where circles have been drawn in public places in huge dimension. “The circle in many cultures is a symbol of unity and wholeness; it has nothing but good connotations,” Uribe says. “And doing the circle by yourself, you really realize what the circle is. But in doing the circle with a lot of other people, you bring people together, and that feeling is stronger and much bigger. You inspire people,” he continues, “and it’s really an act of brotherhood and collaboration.”

The latest such act was during a June 3 celebration of the United Nations’ 50th anniversary. With members of the American School of Japanese Arts, which operates from the Wilson Street Gallery, Uribe and others covered five 30-foot panels with one large circle. Once dry, the panels were hung for 17 days from the roof of San Francisco’s War Memorial Building. One section of that circle will hang in the show.

“It’s not a protest against war and injustice,” he says. “It’s more of a healing process and a statement, and a way of bringing people together to do something positive.”

Uribe’s vision has changed since his Gulf War work. The bold representationalism of those late-’80s pieces is gone, and in its place is the circle. “I don’t know where I’m going, and I don’t care,” he says simply. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve never really worried about that. I’ve always just sort of followed my nose and my instincts, and this is where I am right now.”

“In the Circle” exhibits through Dec. 3 at the American School of Japanese Arts, 602 Wilson St., Santa Rosa. A reception for Mario Uribe is planned for Nov. 10, from 5 to 7 p.m., and he will give a talk on Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. Gallery hours, for this show only, are Thursday from 2 to 8 p.m., and Friday-Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. Free. 523-1950.

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