A feel for activism, a deft touch

In Caleb Duarte's "sculptural paintings," materials speak as potently as images.



By Leah Ollman, Special to The Times


Taking a glance at the list of places where Caleb Duarte has shown his work, and the themes of the exhibitions he's been in, it's clear that the young artist from Oakland has a political bent, that he regards his work as an activist practice of sorts. Viewing his first show in L.A., at Gallery 727, it's also clear that he has a tremendous amount to offer, in terms of nuance and skill, toward broadening the category of socially informed artistic practice.In Duarte's "sculptural paintings," materials speak as potently as images. Duarte draws and paints on pieces of drywall, then sets the panels within driftwood structures that protrude from the wall or construction-type frameworks. The drywall is scuffed and Duarte has stained it with sallow washes of acrylic. Puddles of watery brown and dull gray drip down the surface, mingling with scribbled notations and numbers.


The atmosphere is one of degradation, disregard, randomness and poverty. Within these amorphous settings, Duarte places figures, singly or in small groups. Much of the power of this work derives from the contrast between the integrity of these figures and the shabbiness of their milieu. In "Pisos de Tierra" (Dirt Floors), four young black boys press together tightly in a line, the momentum of their bodies leaning them forward at a slight angle. Duarte draws their skin in rich, full-strength charcoal and paints their shorts and shirts (perhaps a school uniform) in gleaming white. Their earnestness appears to be on a collision course with circumstance. The drywall panel on which they are so vividly drawn also contains snippets of ad copy, a symbol for equal housing opportunity and a sketch of a young black man pumping gas. It forms part of a framed wall of a downscaled house form, whose neatly demarcated floor is made of dirt.Duarte has a light touch with commentary. In an image of a couple being married, he writes the word "pobre" (poor) across the groom's outlined head, but mostly he makes allusions to social inequities through the structures and forms of his work, through raw or eroded surfaces, skittered with graphic debris. In "Tabla," two young, barefoot children hold hands against a backdrop of distant threats to their innocence and safety: a silhouette of soldiers raising guns, the R-rating designation for a film, another row of soldiers, this time in video-game style pictographs.Duarte draws with gorgeous facility and with an abiding sense of honesty. He brings to mind graphic artists like Käthe Kollwitz and Charles White, whose attentive renderings of the face and body in themselves express a kind of hope and faith in humanity. Duarte's figures have a purity about them, even as they navigate an impure world. The way they float among the scrap suggests vulnerability, but Duarte invests them — as if wishing this upon the world — with awareness of their innate self-worth.Gallery 727, 727 S. Spring St., (213) 627-9563, through Sept. 30. Closed Sunday and Monday.

These works are not the agitprop that formalists defensively invoke, like conservatives denouncing the enemies of their idealized realm. Duarte is interested in “changing the collective mind” through empathy with “the depths of suffering and joy experienced by all people”—empathy being an emotion largely lost to modern art since Nietzsche’s obituary for the bourgeois, imperialist god of our fathers. As Duarte’s work reflects Eastern and Western religious/philosophical ideas, it also challenges the gallery/museum v. art center dichotomy: “I’m interested in existing in-between, where it fits in neither [but is]  strange and beautiful in both.

art Ltd. magazine

              KQED Spark- Caleb Duarte


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EDELO (En Donde Era La ONU)


Looking out into the crowd at the Creative Time Summit year after year, it has become clear that the divide between those presenting on the stage and those seated in the audience is barely distinguishable. In an effort to acknowledge the impressive scope of our community, the lineup this year will include a special presentation by Caleb Duarte, whose project was selected through the first-ever Open Call for a Summit presenter. Duarte comes to the Summit on behalf of EDELO, which he co-founded with fellow artist Mia Eva Rollow in San Cristobal de Las Casas in the Chiapas region of Mexico. EDELO began in 2008 out of the occupation of the city’s United Nations offices by over one hundred displaced indigenous community members. The peaceful protests hoped to attract international attention from humanitarian organizations. Instead, after three months, the United Nations moved out. In its wake, Duarte and Rollow invited artists, activists, cultural workers, and community members to inhabit the abandoned facility, which they named EDELO, an acronym for En Donde Era La ONU that translates as “Where the United Nations Used to Be”. The project suggests the possibility that art can effectively imitate the role of institutional bodies by transforming their inherent bureaucratic into a venue for open dialogue and experimentation. Today, EDELO continues to act as a residency program where artists and activists from around the globe can collaborate with the local inhabitants, often Zapataist members, of rural Chiapas. As a Mexican immigrant who relocated to California at an early age, Duarte holds a personal connection to the questions of social protection, migration, and social mobility addressed in the space of EDELO He now resides in Chiapas where oversees EDELO and maintains his own practice. His work has exhibited in Mexico, Italy and across the United States and has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Art LTD Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and SPARK public television, among others.

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Duarte creates intimate spaces that impart a sense of humanity's search for meaning, family, placement and home. The temporary aspect of his installations reflects the cyclical nature of life and the way in which the built environment is constructed and destroyed over and over again. By making changeable and evolving structures, Duarte evokes a ubiquitous aspect of our existence, which, alongside the inclusion of the figures, points to the beauty of human yearning.


A lot of what you read in the newspaper and the Beehive is short, punchy and — let’s face it — fairly easy to understand. Sometimes arts stories can’t be those things. For my Sunday Spotlight column, I wrote a piece about Caleb Duarte, one of the six artists featured in the Fresno Art Museum’s terrific “Breakthrough” show. Duarte made an installation for the museum based on a performance-art piece he did in the state of Chiapas, Mexico.



JUNE 2008

ART LTD Magazine, Artist Profile by Dewitt Cheng



SAN FRANCISCO Chronicle, Kenneth Baker, Cuartitos at Jack fisher gallery




Posted May 3, 2009 3:47 pm




GALLERY CRAWL, KQED PUBLIC TELIVISION on Domestic Alchemy exhibition ORIGIONALY AIRED February 6, 2007


METRO ACTIVE, Silicon Valley California, ON VISSUAL ALCHOMY, Michael S. Gant


MARCH 2007



MAY 2007

ART LTD Gallery Review on Cuartitios,at Jack Fisher Gallery, Dewitt Cheng



Art Week, on Urban Shelter, Jakki Spencer


FEBRUARY 23, 2007

SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE, New York (Reuters) on Nuevo Arte, Christine Kearney


SEPTEMBER 17, 2004

Los Angeles Times, gallery review, A Feel for Activism, A Deft Touch, Leah Ollman


Listen to Caleb Duarte and Emory Douglas speak about the Black Panther and Zapatista encounter on KPOO


Caleb Duarte and Xun Gallo at Jack Fischer Gallery

Caleb Duarte returns to Jack Fischer Gallery with artist Xun Gallo in a collaborative exhibition of contemporary life in fragments in Chiapas, Mexico. Full of rainforests and significant Mayan archeological sites, Chiapas is home to one of the Mexico’s largest indigenous populations. The southernmost state in Mexico has been unstable with outside interests of agricultural redevelopment, most famously manifested in the 1994 Zapatista uprising. A documentary video in the back of the gallery and informational booklet provides a helpful context for the exhbition.


Mexican Museum Collection SF

The current exhibition at The Mexican Museum - The Tequila Don Julio Collection, is a recent acquisition to their permanent collection. This show is up through the weekend, ending Jan. 6th, 2013 (although the pieces may still be on display somewhere, since it is part of their collection.) It features “the cutting-edge vitality of some of today’s most engaging Mexican and Mexican American Artists.

caleb duarte piñon




By Sarah Burke

June 8, 2017