AT SUNSET ON A WINTER EVENING just outside Roswell, Eric J. García is making good on a promise to take art out of the gallery. In the field behind his house at the Roswell Artist-in-Residence compound, a large makeshift canvas sail is rigged to an abandoned telephone pole. The setup resembles the mast of a disembodied Spanish galleon. Projected onto the canvas are two recognizable video game images: the Space Invaders logo and the ox-driven covered wagon from The Oregon Trail.
The creative juxtaposition of these graphics begins to make sense even before García stands to explain the installation to his fellow resident artists. “Think about who’s really from this nation and who’s the alien,” he says. “Colonialists, Europeans, the empires that came here. First contact. The first ‘alien abductions’ happened when Columbus came, stole a couple Natives, and took them back to Europe. When I’m using the word ‘alien,’ I’m talking about another way of looking at that term.”
He plays an English recording of the 1967 Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales epic poem Yo Soy Joaquín, or I Am Joaquín, for the group. A seminal work of the Chicano movement, Gonzales’s poem speaks to the ethnic and cultural identities of many New Mexicans.
“Part of the blood that runs deep in me could not be vanquished by the Moors,” the poem goes. “Part of the blood that is mine has labored endlessly four hundred years under the heel of lustful Europeans. / I am still here!”
To anyone glancingly familiar with the career of García, a 43-year-old illustrator, printmaker, sculptor, and muralist, the evening’s program stands at the end of a clear continuum. Beginning as a political cartoonist for the University of New Mexico’s Daily Lobo in 2004, García has honed an artistic style steeped in the tradition of the Mexican muralists—Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros—as well as the Mexican American activists and artists he learned about while minoring in Chicano studies at UNM.
There’s also a healthy dose of politically saturated wit in the tradition of Mexican lithographer José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913). García’s arresting works have garnered national acclaim for transcending mediums and aesthetics to offer critical commentary on the American experience. His latest triumph? One of García’s works earned a place in Revolution, Resistance, and Activism, a 2021–22 exhibition of drawings and prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
His artworks tell stories grounded in history, experience, and swashbuckling satire, seen through the lens of García’s identity as a 12th-generation New Mexican. A 2018 collection of his political cartoons, Drawing on Anger, features a scheming Uncle Sam and a fearful, long-suffering Lady Liberty, battling their way through more than a decade of recent American history, from the leaky Keystone XL oil pipeline to the border crisis.
Lithographs done in collaboration with UNM’s Tamarind Institute tackle histories both personal and political. A recent print honors the legacy of his activist cousin José Maria Perea III (1974–2019), who grew up, like García, in Albuquerque’s South Valley. Another lithograph focuses on Las Gorras Blancas, the 1889–91 group of Hispano vigilantes who raided the Anglo-American homesteads that displaced local people from their land.
Read More: In the heart of Albuquerque, the Tamarind Institute breathes life—and ink—into a once-dying art.
García’s three-dimensional art is no less incisive. War Nest, a 2016 large-scale sculpture installation at the National Veterans Art Museum, in Chicago, is a 12-by-4-foot circular nest of cut-out wooden rifles, machine guns, and pistols rendered in cartoonish outlines. It includes text that references American wars and military campaigns, as well as domestic incidents like the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
A four-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, García credits his military service for helping him to attain undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as providing plenty of fodder for critical commentary. “I was always drawing caricatures of the dumb things they made us do,” he says.
For Space Invaders, his alien-focused March 12–April 24 exhibition at the Roswell Museum, García engages with his immediate environment both thematically and organically. Inspired by the blooming prickly pear cacti that grow around the artists’ compound, he painted a sail-like canvas with his concoction of bright magenta prickly pear ink.
“After grad school, I decided I wouldn’t paint with oil on canvas anymore,” he explains in his studio, gesturing to multiple experiments with different homemade ink formulas. “It felt elitist. Oil and canvas are the epitome of the Western art world, right?”
The painting depicts the infamous 1519 showdown between conquistador Hernán Cortés and Aztec emperor Moctezuma. It’s a recognizable moment from the intersection of Mexican and art history, but García’s version makes a science-fictional pivot, reinterpreting the encounter from an Aztec perspective. “It was like H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds,” he says. “Aliens had come down from a different world! The Indigenous didn’t know where these guys had come from, with all these powerful weapons.”
Pop-culture motifs dominate the scene. Cortés is rendered as an automated robot in armor and controlled by a miniature creature from the movie Alien. The figure of La Malinche, whom García depicts, unusually, at the very center of the action, appears as Communications Officer Uhura from Star Trek, focusing on the Nahua woman’s powerful role as an interpreter. King Charles V of Spain, phoning in to orchestrate the action, is Marvel Comics’s Galactus, a devourer of planets. A UFO whizzes by in the distance. Like much of García’s work, it’s multilayered, engrossing, and hilarious.
Another piece in the exhibition consists of a fabricated Roswell Museum guide. It centers on the museum’s permanent display of antique military objects, situating them as “Roswell’s actual alien artifacts,” with satirical descriptions to accompany outlines of the objects.
What does the museum think of García poking fun at its collection? “Encouraging contemporary artists to have a stance of challenging narratives through an institution’s collection is exciting,” says Roswell Museum Curator of Collections Aaron Wilder. He even helped García create the piece, dredging up old graphics files from curatorial archives to achieve the guide’s authentic look. “I see his work here as a way of not only critiquing the white-dominant narrative—not just in Roswell, but across the country—but also challenging the UFO mania to begin with.”
Read More: Desierto Mountain Time illuminates the connections among regional artists, signal-boosting their message across borders.
Wilder says he fully expects that not everyone will love García’s machete-sharp trickery, especially when it’s brandished at the alien-loving populace of Roswell and those who visit the city. “The use of satire is lost on some people,” Wilder explains. “I think there will be a mixture of responses.”
Back in García’s studio, I listen to him explain the pop-culture multiverse of sci-fi and alien characters he’s beamed into his renderings of Western figures like Billy the Kid, John Chisum, and Kit Carson. Something hits me. The guy likes science fiction, almost as much as he loves retelling history through art.
“You want to capture the sci-fi audience, right?” I ask. “And UFO enthusiasts?”
“Yeah!” he says with delight. “I want them to come to the show and say, ‘These aren’t the aliens I was expecting.’ ”
See More Art
Two museums spotlight the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program.
The Roswell Museum hosts a rotating lineup of exhibitions from the five yearly RAiR artists. Space Invaders: Work by Eric J. García closes on April 24. Exhibitions by former residents Barbara Latham and Michelle Bourque Sewards also run through this summer. 1011 N. Richardson Ave.; 575-624-6744.
The Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art is an eclectic collection of painting, photography, sculpture, prints, and installations from RAiR guest artists that dates back to the 1967 inception of the program. 409 E. College Blvd.; 575-623-5600.