Artist René Yañez engages viewers with wit and energy

"Skating on a Joint" by René Yañez. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

There’s nothing in René Yañez’s playful and inventive art to suggest it’s the work of a man in his 70s — let alone that the artist is dealing with a terminal illness. Yet that’s precisely the situation at the second-floor gallery at the Luggage Store, where a show by Yañez opens Friday. Yañez, an artist, curator and co-founder of two of the city’s most important Latino cultural institutions, including the Galería de la Raza, was surveying it all last week as he organized the way viewers will navigate his show, “Into the Fade,” which opens Friday at 6 p.m.

Yañez said he produced most of the work in the last year, a period in which he has been receiving twice-weekly infusions of chemotherapy or blood.  

“At first I was afraid,” he said of the treatments’ effects. “And then I embraced it.” Doing so, he added with a laugh, “has been much more fun.”

Artist, René Yañez. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

That fun is clear in his recent work. Ranging from figurative to abstract, it includes mixed media, drawings, pastels and assemblages that are inventive and witty, and show an inquisitive engagement with art and life. The breadth and playfulness recall SFMOMA’s Robert Rauschenberg show, “Erasing the Rules.” Like Rauschenberg, Yañez has a restless mind and loads of talent, and he experiments freely with medium and materials.  

The artist, who has lived in the Mission District for most of his adult life, said that when he told his doctor earlier this year that he was thinking of doing a show in the fall, “the doctor told me, ‘You’d better do it sooner.’ So I’m doing it sooner.” He laughed at the thought that he might beat his prognosis. “I’m playing this out.”  

That’s apparent in his art. The show is divided into a half-dozen sections, each with a different focus. In one, the paintings and prints depict the hallucinations that Yañez experiences after treatments. Another section is dedicated to weed, which he uses to alleviate nausea.

Instead of a sense of dread or illness, Yañez’s hallucinations produce figures that float pleasantly in space. The section on weed offers the exuberance of a figure careening across the canvas on a joint fixed with wheels. “That’s skating on a joint on a rainy day,” said Yañez who made it out of black paper and a baggie.

The show also references earlier projects. On opening night, a stand will be set up where Yañez and others will be making and imprinting tortillas, a project called “The Great Tortilla Conspiracy,” for which he is well known. There will also be an altar by Yañez, who is credited with making Día de los Muertos a citywide cultural event. The altar on view Friday will levitate.

“Sometimes I sit down and things float, so I’m going to make this float,” he said.

Another section pays homage to Frida Kahlo, an artist he wanted the museums here to show before she was popular. When they refused, he exhibited her work at the Galería de la Raza, and the show was an instant hit. Now, he says, she has become an international icon more popular than the Virgin de Guadalupe.

In the section on street art, Yañez has the playfulness of a much younger — and healthier — man. Street art is a new passion, he said, one he took up “to pay attention” to the world around him.  “I document it, put things up, and people deface them, and that’s part of it.”

He recently spent six hours copying a Michelangelo figure on an urban wall. The next day, he returned to find it defaced. He took a photograph, and that became another piece. “I kind of like this better,” he said, looking at the defaced work.

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“Into the Fade,” a show by René Yañez
The Luggage Store Gallery
1007 Market St.

A drawing that is a copy of a photograph of Frida Kahlo by René Yañez. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

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