Having grown up on the Mexico/U.S. border, Julio Cesar Morales has straddled two worlds since childhood. Wearing multiple identities is something he has grown comfortable with. This is exemplified by the many roles he plays in the art world: the Bay Area-based Morales is a curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; co-founder/director/curator of the Mission-based Queen's Nails Project, a project space/gallery (formerly Queen's Nails Annex); and teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). He also develops and implements youth arts programs for San Francisco's Galleria de la Raza and, previously, with artist Suzanne Lacy in Oakland. And, Morales is a conceptual artist, which is where his cross-border voice is most elegantly evident.
Morales was born in 1966 in Tijuana, Mexico, where he lived until he was ten. "Then we moved a block away--to the United States, to San Ysidro," he recalls. "For the next ten years I would go back and forth almost daily. [In my work] I'm trying to illustrate specific subcultures or things happening between the U.S. and Mexico or California itself. I only make work that I have a personal connection with."
Originally, Morales's subject of interest was graphic arts when he began attending Southwestern College, a community college in San Diego. "I had to take a photo class as part of the major," he explains, "and it changed my life. I really love documentary photography. Even now, the source material of everything I do stems from photography. I approach things like a photojournalist." From there, he came to San Francisco to study at SFAI. Since then, his work has been shown internationally from Turkey to Japan to Sweden, Mexico, and France, as well as at the California Biennial, LACMA, San Diego Museum of Art and the de Young Museum, among other venues.
Morales' work is rooted in its concept. "I use whatever medium is necessary for the work," he states. "So I collaborate according to the project I'm working on. It's such an antiquated idea that you're by yourself in your studio and you're only limited to what you know in regards to technical aspects. I do always have my hand in everything I do, but I'll work with whomever I need to, to get my ideas out." Morales has worked in interactive media, video, food, and sculpture, among other mediums.
In addition to works about Mexico's street-vending culture and other informal economies--Morales' grandfather was a street vendor for forty years--and California's Mexican history, an idea that has occupied Morales for years is the ways illegal immigrants get into the United States over the Tijuana border. A series he's been working on since the mid-2000s, Undocumented Interventions, consists of watercolors depicting the various "containers" people (often children) are sealed into to sneak across: car seats, pinatas, large stereo speakers. And, he's currently working on a video that follows three people attempting to cross the border. Another recent series, Narco Arquitectos, features drawings, blueprints, and a to-scale model of recent tunnels dug under the border to transport drugs--Morales recalls helping his uncle dig tunnels when he was a child. (Pieces from this series and Undocumented Interventions, along with the video, will be shown in a solo exhibition at San Francisco's Frey Norris Gallery starting in April.)
"I always attempt to make the work aesthetically pleasing, and then you can look at it deeper," Morales says of his approach to often disturbing or difficult subjects. "I try to not only talk about the realities, but also make it so that you can enjoy it as a work of art. For me, it's a way to invite someone to have a dialogue or consider those realities."
A solo show of Julio Cesar Morales' new work will be on view at Frey Norris Gallery, in San Francisco, from April 2 - May 28, 2011. www.freynorris.com