Roberto Gil de Montes isn’t sure how he became the next big thing in the art world in the early 1970s. He has been doing the same job for half a century, he insists, painting seven days a week, creating surreal, stylized portraits of ordinary people he encounters in his everyday life.
But less than three years ago, an email arrived at his home in the small fishing town of La Peñita de Jaltemba on Mexico’s Pacific coast, where he has lived for more than two decades. It was from a friend who had a friend who worked at a gallery in Mexico City called Kurimanzutto. Would Mr. Gil de Montes be interested in a chat about showing some work there? The artist had never heard of Kurimanzutto.
He had a quick chat with one of the sales directors, Malik Al-Mahruki, and then an interview with the co-founder, Jose Khoury. An invitation to hang a few paintings in the gallery followed.
It will be a small exhibition, only a few works in an enclosed part of the space and the audience will be limited due to the restrictions related to the pandemic. “There was not going to be an opening,” Mr. Gil de Montes said, explaining why he had kept his expectations low. “Gallery will be by appointment only.”
In just a few days, however, the paintings sold out.
Kurimanzutto — a premier international gallery with a global roster of artists — sensed a good thing was coming. Soon after, he brought a sample of the work to the 2021 Frieze art fair in New York. “And at Frieze, the curator of the Venice Biennale, Cecilia Alemani, saw me,” said Mr. Gil de Montes.
She gave it a place in her exhibition “The Milk of Dreams”, which took place at the legendary Arsenale in Venice in April 2022. It was again a hit. The paintings were widely appreciated and sales to museums and private collectors followed, as well as invitations to participate in more exhibitions.
Kurimanzutto will make Mr. Gil de Montes the focus of his Friday-Sunday offerings at Art Basel’s Paris+ and will follow that up with a solo show at his satellite gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood from November 10th to December 22nd.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing,” Ms. Alemany said when asked in a telephone interview last month why Mr. Gil de Montes’ work had suddenly become popular. “If you don’t sync your time, your work may not be recognized.”
Her take: The art world has changed, not the artist.
“We are at a point where people are starting to look outside the canon,” Mr Al-Mahruki said. “And I think Roberto embodies different aspects of anti-canon art.”
If outsiders are present, then Mr. Gil de Montes has all his work and personal history to match the moment. “I’ve been called immigrant, Mexican, Mexican, Latino, Chicano, gay, queer, all of that,” he said during an interview at his home.
Mr. Gil de Montes was born in Guadalajara and moved with his family to East Los Angeles as a teenager. Early in his career, he became associated with the Chicano arts movement in Los Angeles and in 1978 co-founded Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, or LACE, an experimental space that drew attention to the city’s art scene.
He worked as a professional artist for a long time. He was represented for many years by the Jan Baum Gallery in Los Angeles, which closed in 2007. He had regular clients, did several high-profile public projects, and was featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions.
But things “changed dramatically,” he said, when Kurimanzuto stepped in.
Mr Gilles de Montes said he struggled with the labels people attached to him, although he admitted they often fit. Like many Chicano artists, he documented scenes of ordinary Mexican and Mexican American life. A nod to his Mexican heritage is evident in the way he integrates iconography from pre-Columbian and indigenous Huichol culture into his scenery.
As for the queer element, Mr. Gil de Montes paints mostly men, often young, fit and shirtless. In one of his better-known paintings, El Pescador, he pays homage to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, though he replaces the Renaissance artist’s nude goddess with a sleek fisherman reclining in a huge seashell.
“I think my painting sensibility is gay,” he said. “I’m not a misogynist by any means, but I draw men.”
Only recently has he come to consider himself a surrealist because he so often hears the work described that way. His paintings can have a dreamlike quality, with seemingly insignificant objects grouped together on the same canvas – people interacting with each other, but also with tigers, owls and turtles. His subjects, always serious and silent in their demeanor, stare straight, even hypnotically, at the viewer. Sometimes their faces are covered by masks or hidden behind veils.
Mr. Gilles de Montes often paints from memory, evoking scenes from years past, and this shows in his work – things can seem fragmented, unclear, illogical. In 2013’s The Dream, a man goes wild on the beach with a tiger. In 2022’s “Sunday,” three male figures spend a day at the beach; he’s given them bodies and towels, and one is holding a boombox over his head, but there’s no detail on their faces.
While the evolving tastes of art collectors opened doors for artists like Mr. Gil de Montes, his particular skills and way of seeing the world were what carried him through, said Rita Gonzalez, chief contemporary curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of art and a longtime follower of the artist’s career.
“Roberto’s work is interesting because it’s truly transnational — and it was long before that term was popularized and became fashionable,” she said. “He’s super American, but he’s also super Mexican, and that’s the hybrid nature of being between cultures.”
These days, Mr. Gil de Montes said, he feels more Mexican than American, mostly because of his immersion in La Peñita, where he is most at home. He and his husband, Eddie Dominguez, came across the place on a meandering coastal vacation 35 years ago and fell hard for its understated charm. It was the escape they were looking for after many years in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
La Peñita is about an hour’s drive north of Puerto Vallarta, the tourist mecca known for its pristine beaches and endless parties. It’s a very different place – dusty and sleepy, low-lying and economically challenged by the decline of its once-thriving fishing industry. Beaches can be littered with trash, and some roads are left rough and washed out by the tropical storms that pass through each summer.
Mr. Gil de Montes lives in a small complex of two houses and a swimming pool on a hill that rises on the edge of town, although he drives several miles each morning to his second-floor attic studio in a concrete building on the town’s main square. Like so many homes, restaurants and shops there, it has no air conditioning, even though the region is one of the hottest in Mexico.
The artist thrives on remoteness, silence. He never socialized much with other artists or gallerists and was known to miss exhibition openings and parties. His disposition is more suited to a “small-town figure painter,” as he describes himself, than an internationally renowned artist.
“It’s funny,” he said. “I feel embarrassed that there is recognition for my work, even though I spent all these years trying to.”