Joe Peña’s success as an artist has hit a career high. His work is included in the exhibit “Soy de Tejas” at the Centro de Artes in San Antonio and is featured prominently at The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art in Riverside, California. The “Soy de Tejas: A Statewide Survey of Latinx Art” exhibit opened in February 2023 and closes on July 2. Peña’s art is currently on a more long-term basis at The Cheech in Riverside, California. His paintings of taco trucks, store fronts, and other similar venues “are used as a metaphor for the notion of home as an internal sense of place, not merely a physical location.”
Peña is one of 40 artists currently in the exhibit at the “Soy De Tejas” in San Antonio, that includes 100 works by artists of Latino descent with ties to Texas. Local Latino art connoisseur Rigoberto Luna, co-founder with Janelle
Esparaza of Presa House, conceived the idea of bringing artists with Tejas connections to the San Antonio Mercado where the Centro de Artes is located. Luna was motivated
to organize “Soy de Tejas” in part because he noticed several young Texas artists gaining national recognition
without proper acknowledgement of their Texas origins. At the Riverside, California Cheech Museum, Maria Esther Fernandez, the museum’s new curator, also recognized Peña’s talent and selected four of his works for the opening show last summer and for the museum’s current exhibition.
Peña began showing art in Texas in 2008 shortly after returning to his home state from a ten year hiatus in New York City. His art journey took him from Corpus Christi to New York in the mid 1990s. His current achievements were greatly influenced by his persistence, training, and learning experiences in New York, one of the world’s major art centers.
Peña is proud of his South Texas roots and well aware that the borderland region has profoundly shaped his creative outlook. He grew up in a bilingual environment and absorbed the cultures and traditions of his surrounding community that was largely Mexican American. He took up drawing at an early age, at least from the second grade on, and dedicated himself to developing advanced skills and techniques.
Peña has a fond remembrance of the ah ha moment in the fourth grade when students thought his animal drawing was so good they believed it had been traced from a book. After demonstrating that it was his original work, Peña gained new confidence in his artistic abilities. In high school Peña had an excellent art teacher, Linda Jones, who challenged students and arranged class field
trips to visit museums exposing the students to a wide variety of art styles and themes.
In high school, Peña dreamed of landing a job with the famed Disney Company as a character animator. He sent a sample of his drawings to the Disney office hoping for a job offer. Disney responded with a thank you letter letting him know that they were looking for artists with more experience and artistic skills. Peña decided that college would be the best path to gaining greater art skills.
Peña enrolled in the art program at Del Mar
Community College in 1989. He next attended Texas A&M University Corpus Christi [TAMUCC] where he studied with the Painting Professor Bruno Andrade. Over the next two years Andrade served as a teacher, mentor, and friend. When Peña needed money to pay for his tuition, Andrade found work for him. While attending TAMUCC, Peña also worked in Andrade’s studio stretching canvasses and assisting in related art projects.
Peña had just completed his college art degree in Corpus Christi in the mid 1990s when professor Bruno Andrade recruited him to go to New York City to assist in opening MB Modern Gallery at a busy commercial area of Midtown Manhattan. Although Peña’s work in the art gallery consumed long hours, leaving little free time, he continued to paint. He loved the New York art galleries and art museums and made a point to take in as much as time would allow. Two of his works were included in a show at MB Modern where he worked.
Maureen Mullarkey, art reviewer with The Critical State of Visual Art in New York, saw his work at MB Modern in 1999 and gave Peña a very positive evaluation. She wrote that Peña had an appealing collection of “spare, miniature portraits.” Mullarkey particularly liked the profile
of a young man smoking. The pencil sketch suggested, she noted, “just that bored, rather louche male detachment that keeps us going to the video store for old Jean-Paul Bemondo movies.”
Peña left New York in 2004 at the request of
Professor Andrade to attend the graduate program as the first MFA in painting at TAMUCC, and then worked with the City of Corpus Christi as the Public Arts Manager in 2006. He served there for 18 months before accepting a
post as Gallery Director at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi [TAMUCC]. Peña also taught as an adjunct professor in the TAMUCC art department for nearly a decade. He received an appointment to Associate Professor of Art with a concentration in Painting at TAMUCC in 2017.
Peña had only shown his paintings in three Houston exhibits and one in San Antonio when he met the famed art collector Cheech Marin in early the 2000s. Cheech had flown to Corpus Christi to see the local Latino art at the recommendation of his art advisor Melissa Richardson. Richardson arranged for Peña to drive Cheech around Corpus Christi to see all the art galleries and studios known to support Chicano artists. When they reached their last gallery Cheech stopped to admire a painting and asked Peña if he knew about the artist. Peña responded–”That’s my work.” Cheech replied, “Well, let’s go to Your studio.” After seeing the innovative art at Peña’s studio, Cheech bought ten of Peña’s works.
Cheech Marin included Peña’s work in the exhibit Chicanitas: Small Paintings from the Cheech Marin Collection featured at Mesa Arts Center Museum in Mesa, Arizona, then at Norte Dame University. The exhibit also traveled to several other cities. Regarding that exhibition
Peña wrote that his “work explores perceptions of cultural identity, including aspects of ethnic, familial and societal roles relating to my Mexican and South Texas heritage.” He added that the “subject matter [of the work] portrayed through various manifestations including still life, portraiture, and urban landscapes further references and investigatives personal narraives as a native Texan with Mexican roots.”
Several months ago my wife Harriett and I went to see The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art in Riverside, California. Our art adventure took us first to El Paso, then on to Los Angeles, Oxnard, and Riverside. We lived in Southern California in the late 60s and throughout the entire 1970s, and we always enjoy our visits to that region and the opportunity to explore the West Coast Latino art scene.
Over the past five decades, Harriett and I have been following the Chicano art movement and collecting the work of nearly 300 Latino artists. On this trip, we visited seven museums in L.A. in five days, and saw few Chicano artists. We delighted at seeing Peña’s paintings and other Chicano artists’ works at The Cheech. In the Cheech exhibit , Peña’s paintings focused on food trucks and store fronts, and what he described as “other similar venues used as a metaphor for the notion of home as an internal sense of place, not merely a physical location.”
Joe Peña represents a new generation of Chicano artists who find beauty and relevant subjects in everyday life. His experimentation with new mediums shows great promise. As an artist and educator he is well positioned to give Tejano artists greater exposure and recognition.