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Artist Ernesto Ybarra looks to shed old skin

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Olan Mills Circa 1988
Artist Ernesto Ybarra's "Olan Mills Circa 1988"
Courtesy of Ernesto Ybarra

Ernesto Ybarra is holding a memorial for himself.

His new exhibition "The Death of Neto," which opens tonight at Icehouse in Minneapolis, is a farewell to the artistic identity he's built for himself. 

"'Neto' is a nickname that was given me by my grandma when I was months old," explained Ybarra, a native of St. Paul. "When I started painting, I decided to use that name; it was short and sweet, and came from a pure place."

Fifteen years into his career, Ybarra says this show is about shedding an old skin. 

"I just feel a progression in my work and I need something literal to make the transition," said Ybarra. "This state I've been in needs to go, I need to pass it."

Ybarra's works range from the representational to the abstract, often combining the two. Many include references to his Mexican heritage; Ybarra's a member of the local Chicano artists' collective "The Electric Machete Studios." He's heavily influenced by Diego Rivera and John Michel Basquiat. 

"When I saw [Basquiat's] work something happened to me," recalled Ybarra. "I was obsessed, passionate, I wanted nothing more than to be a painter — and I still don't. These paintings are really personal — it's not because blue looks good with yellow — these are feelings I'm dealing with, and the abstracts are pure me."

Heavy the head that wears the crown
"Heavy the head that wears the crown" by Ernesto Ybarra
Courtesy of Ernesto Ybarra

One of the most significant changes in this latest body of work is the sudden change in palette. Brilliant colors have in many cases been replaced with blacks and grays. The shift coincides with a return to the Twin Cities from Seattle.

   "It was so different when I got back, and how I saw things were different," said Ybarra. "Things are black and white and grey around me right now — there's not a lot of color."

Ybarra says the stories in these latest paintings aren't "sugar-coated." 

"I'm going through some pretty heavy stuff," said Ybarra. "I die every day sometimes — that's how I feel right now — and I'll turn into a painting. It's my outlet, my therapy, my lover, my friend."

Ybarra's show is co-curated by writer Jessica Lopez Lyman and painter Armando Gutierrez. 

"I want artists like Neto — Chicano artists in Minnesota — to get more exposure," said Lopez Lyman. "Their work is saying something particularly important in this moment."

Lopez Lyman points to issues facing Latinos around education and immigration. She said this show is not just about Ybarra's identity, but also about cultural affirmation.

"We're coming out of this time of Dia de los Muertos, where we saw folks appropriating this culture," said Lopez Lyman. "[Ybarra] is authentically putting his heart to canvas, he's affirming his history. He's asking us to think about how we transform ourselves in our own lives."

In Between Worlds
"In Between Worlds" by Ernesto Ybarra
Courtesy of Ernesto Ybarra

Lopez Lyman said it's fitting this show comes in winter, a time commonly associated with death and introspection. 

"At times we have moments of color and vibrancy," she said, "and at other times when we de-clutter, or grow intellectually, new things emerge. This show isn't about the past, or even the present, but the shift in-between."

For his part, Gutierrez says he admires Ernesto's intuitiveness with his art.

"There are few people I know that are born with that. He must have a painter's spirit way back from somewhere," said Gutierrez.  "One of things I learned as a young artist is that it's really about the opportunities that you are allowed. That's why I feel so supportive of his work," said Gutierrez. "For me, being in this supportive role is about giving Ernesto the opportunity to spread his wings. That's what our artists need."

"The Death of Neto" will be up at Icehouse through February 9. While Ybarra's looking forward to showing his work to a new audience, his favorite critics are his son and daughter, or "my sun and my moon" as he refers to them. 

"In conversations, when they look at [a painting] and tell me what they see, the kids give them life. No one else could do that for me except them," said Ybarra.