Mexican-American Artist Brings Unique Perspective Of Rural Experience

By Zac Schultz | May 9, 2018


The best art criticism comes from the proper perspective. You need to understand where the artist is coming from, but you can’t be so close you can’t see the flaws.

“So I sit in this chair and I’m sort of just staring at the work and trying to imagine myself as a viewer who has never looked at the work before,” says Rafael Francisco Salas.

As an art professor at Ripon College and an art critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Salas knows criticism is a part of the process. But good criticism requires some distance, an outside perspective. “So, I ask the same questions. What’s working? What isn’t working? What’s pretty? What’s not pretty? Is it smart? Is it really stupid?”

Rafael understands not everybody will get the message in his artwork and he acknowledges that by painting in pixelization. “Everything we see is mediated by screens, so anytime I use this, and I use it a lot in my work, I’m acknowledging the fact that paintings in our life and our viewpoints are kind of glitchy.”

Salas was seemingly born with an outsider’s perspective. “He just had a different way of looking at the world,” says his mother Barb Salas. She remembers her son as mostly happy growing up on a farm outside Ripon. “He was always very much living in your own world.”

“I always felt very internal,’ says Rafael. “I was always thinking about something else.”

Rafael takes much of his inspiration from rural America, but it’s not about sunsets and wheat fields. His artist’s statement talks about a ‘dream continually beyond reach.’ “My own moods and my own look on life, there is a darkness there, so my art work has always sort of reflected an element of bleakness or sadness.”

Salas has a white mother and a Mexican-American father and says he struggled to find his identity. “I have to say, mixed-race identity is hard. It’s hard to sort of know. Do I have an authentic view of Mexican culture? Do I have an authentic view of rural white culture? And the answer is yes and no. I don’t assume that the rural white community gets what I’m doing necessarily. And I don’t assume that the Mexican-American community gets it either.”

Salas found comfort in the country music his father listened to. “So you know, as a five-year-old kid, I’d be listening to the murder ballads by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings. I always liked country music. My work always had a certain kind of darkness and I realized at some point that these country music artists were trying to describe a rural experience and I was trying to describe a rural experience.”


Public Mural Gets Mixed Reviews
Rafael Francisco Salas explains how he brought a darker vision to a public mural art project than the community was expecting.


An Old Chair and Beer Cans as Art
Rafael Francisco Salas walks us through one of his latest art installations, featuring an old chair, a painting of a country music video, and beer cans.


Wood Paneling as Art
Rafael Francisco Salas explains why he is perhaps the greatest living painter of wood paneling.

Zac Schultz

Zac Schultz is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project who thinks three-minute stories and one-line bio descriptions are woefully brief.

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