Self-taught painter Doug Padilla wrestles with his demons

 Mary Abbe

 Star Tribune

 Published February 25, 2005

 Where to start when facing a Doug Padilla painting.

 Mermaids? Feral dogs? Crosses? Skulls? How about the glued-on bicycle reflectors and beer caps? Or the yucky foam frothing along the edges like ribbons of drool?

Talk about visual overload. The 8- by 8-foot painting hanging in the hallway outside Padilla's new show at Gallery Co in downtown Minneapolis is the quintessence of TMI -- too much information. A big red-and-purple extravaganza with thick gold extrusions over a field of abstract-expressionist spatters and blue-camouflage patterns, it is overlaid with mermaid cards, painted wooden crosses and doodles of dogs and skulls derived from Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations.

 If the rest of Padilla's show wasn't such an absolutely over-the-top fabulous event, the hallway painting "La Pendencia (The Quarrel)" could put you off his stuff. Or induce migraines. Or both.

 The paintings inside the gallery are quieter but no less visually demanding. Done in an exuberant "outsider" style of a self-taught painter, they are full of autobiographical details that come tumbling out, yipping and snapping for attention.

"It's one of two huge paintings I did about fights between me and God; fights with the Latino community," Padilla said recently. "I didn't necessarily want it to be overly pretty."

No need to fret about prettiness. After about 30 years knocking around the Twin Cities art scene, Padilla, 56, has his style buttoned down. Following years of dabbling in poetry and the music scene, he took up painting some time back.

 "I remember the exact moment," he said. "I'd been a poet and a musician and gave it all up to meditate a bunch, but then it felt like turning a corner down a different street, and there it was. I'd been doing some mask making and studying indigenous art, and then I realized I was a visual person.

"When? Ah, man. That would require context. Hmmm, ah, 21 years ago? I'm having a hard time grabbing where that happened," he said with a rumbling giggle.

 Before that, there were the hippie years hitchhiking around the country, sleeping under bridges in San Francisco, living freestyle in the communes of Vermont, studying with Hindu swamis in the ashrams of India and with Sufi mystics somewhere and poet Robert Bly back in Minnesota.

 "He's a scenester," said hair-salon and gallery owner Jon Oulman, a stylish type who knows a thing or two about making the scene. "Doug and his wife [Susan Jacobsen, a real-estate agent] both show up at things. Individually and as a couple, they're interested in being not only a part of but instigating, pushing and promoting an art community."

 Married for 17 or 18 years, he's not sure which, Padilla is quick to acknowledge his wife's contribution to his career and well-being. Recalling an old joke, he said, "You know what they call an artist without a girlfriend or a wife? Homeless."

Even further back, Padilla was a Norwegian-Mexican boy growing up in St. Louis Park and singing in a Lutheran church choir.

"The heavy hitter there was the music minister," Padilla said of his childhood bout with Lutheranism. "So by fifth grade, I could sight-read and sing Bach cantatas, which was pretty amazing in retrospect, but at the time I just wanted to play baseball."

Uff-da tostada

Padilla's somewhat unusual dual heritage often collides in his art.

 To promote a 2001 show of local Latino art that he helped organize at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, he and several other artists made campy posters of themselves masquerading as Mexican-style wrestlers. He posed as Vikingo, a swarthy fighter in a horned helmet. Posted on immigrant-rich Lake Street, the posters were a huge success in attracting a new audience of Mexican and Latin American immigrants to a museum that otherwise seemed alien.

 "He's always pursuing new attitudes and ideas and putting things together so you are able to see new connections," said Stewart Turnquist, coordinator of the museum's Minnesota Artists Exhibition program, which sponsored the Latino art show.

 At Gallery Co, a 2-foot-square painting called "Dougie World" features crude, maplike silhouettes of Padilla's geographical touchstones: Minnesota, Mexico and France. Nearby hangs "Dougie World: Addendum #1, Norway," which depicts that country garnished with fish.

 Skull-like heads are everywhere in his art, usually decorated with chips of mirror, bright glass beads and frosting-thick ribbons of pink or blue paint that give them a jaunty look. They derive, he said, from the indigenous Mexican/Catholic custom of welcoming the spirits of the dead back to earth on All Souls' Day.

 "I started building installations and Day of the Dead offrendas in the late 1980s," he said. "Then when my dad [Minneapolis public-relations executive Don Padilla] passed away in 1992, it jumped to a whole new level. It's not just my connection to my father and grandfathers, but to all the teachers and people who have gone before that I've learned from. Dia de los Muertos is a time when everything is very alive, and I just feel my spirit sort of soar."

 As a self-taught artist, Padilla doesn't go the conventional route when it comes to painting. He buys his supplies at Menards or Home Depot rather than at Art Materials. He often uses house paint on plywood and, for texture, throws on construction glue or insulation foam, plus beads, seeds and glitter. One batch of friends saves bottle caps for his constructions, and another collects the pretty, colored-foil tops of Yoplait yogurt containers that he quilts into his compositions.

 "I wish I could find somebody to save chocolate wrappers for me," he said about another favorite art medium. "I can't just throw away the chocolate and keep the wrapper, so I end up eating too much candy."

For all their gaudy exuberance and zesty life force, the paintings in Gallery Co's main salon strike a serious note. On one side, seven long, narrow panels -- each more than 6 feet tall -- glow as if they were stained-glass windows set into the somber gray walls of brushed concrete. Snakes writhe and monsters bare razor-sharp teeth at a hapless hero who wanders in a world of wild dogs and voracious women. All symbolic self-portraits, they suggest a tragicomic narrative of adventurous journeys, hunger, suffering, sex, death and transfiguration.

Told that the colorful display suggested a chapel, Padilla said he'd been thinking about constructing a cathedral. He admires the visionary Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, whose unfinished Sagrada Família cathedral looms over Barcelona, and the American abstract-expressionist painter Mark Rothko, whose chapel in Houston is a modernist pilgrimage site. While he doesn't imagine being able to erect anything so grand, he would like at least to fill a building with his art.


 "People think I'm kidding when I talk about 'Dougie World,' " he said. "But I'm alone in my studio all the time, and a world has to have its own rules and laws. My world is chaotic, but it isn't chaos. I have to live in that world, and I need my kind of beauty and mystery and truth. And, hopefully, all those elements show in the work."


Puerta de ángeles (Door of angels)


What: Colorful paintings and installations by Minneapolis artist Douglas Padilla.


 When: Through March 26. Where: Gallery Co, 400 1st Av. N., Mpls.


 Tickets: Free. 612-332-5252 or


Mary Abbe is at

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