Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings
Diego Romero works in ceramics, prints, and even skateboard deck design. His art feels familiar yet fresh and innovative as he melds different sources of inspiration.
Born in Berkeley, California, Romero is a third-generation artist. He is a member of the Cochiti Pueblo tribe, in which ceramics are held in high esteem. He gained a foundation for pottery while attending the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he studied with Otellie Pasiyava Loloma. From her he learned to source and grind clay, use native paints for surface decoration, and pit fire. He received further training at Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design (BFA) with Ralph Bacerra and at the University of California, Los Angeles (MFA) with Adrian Saxe, who helped him appreciate the potential for narration in his art.
In his youth, Romero was enamored with Jack Kirby, Marvel, and DC Comics. The artist acknowledges comic books as a source for early lessons in drawing and storytelling. He was also drawn to classical literature, including the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Arthurian stories.
Romero loves working in clay because it comes from the Earth and has longevity. Unsurprisingly, historical examples of pottery were influential. During visits to the Getty Museum, Romero was mesmerized by ancient Greek vase painting, humorously recalling his initial reaction: “Wow, these are like the first superhero comic books.”i Indeed, vases and bowls offered large open spaces to illustrate heroic tales, mythological figures, athletic competitions, and everyday life. Characteristically, flat stylized figures line up in a frieze, created in what is called black figure and red figure painting. Easily differentiated by the figures being black or red, the technique names refer to the manner of using clay slip to decorate the surfaces before firing.
Romero was drawn to the work of the Mimbres Valley people around New Mexico (A.D. 900-1100). Their pottery was distinctive amongst early indigenous groups for incorporating figuration in addition to abstract patterns. Both humans and animals were depicted largely silhouetted in black on white ground.
Romero looks to the early Greek and Mimbres civilizations and puts a contemporary spin on them. He builds up his forms through rolled coils, mixes his own clays and slips, and finishes the surfaces with stone polishing techniques. He uses an electric kiln now rather than pit firing and adds narrative scenes by using stencils.
His figurative style is inspired by Pop art, Keith Haring, and comic books. Tricksters make appearances, and many of his works have autobiographical elements as the artist works through issues in his personal life. Humor and satire help take the edge off his otherwise biting commentaries on society, politics, consumerism, and the environment that he calls “manscapes.” He believes, “If we lose the ability to laugh, then we lose the ability to heal.”ii
All this stems from his desire to tell stories. He comments, “I consider myself a chronologist on the absurdity of human nature. My job is to look and observe and document human passions, human kindness, their griefs, and their jealousies and their anguish. And that is I say the bedrock of the art and the narrative.”iii
Romero originally intended to be an illustrator or graphic designer. All his pottery begins with a drawing. When printmaking studios, like Landfall Press and Black Rock Editions, approached him about making prints, it seemed like a logical step.
Romero draws Spanish conquistadors battling Pueblo warriors in the lithograph Saints and Sinners (2017) in a style reminiscent of his beloved work by Jack Kirby for Marvel and DC Comics in the 1960s. The treachery in Romero’s comic book version is Spain as the colonizer and the Catholic Church’s early missionary work. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was significant as a relatively successful uprising of indigenous people. In this print, the conquistadors carry guns highlighting an inequity between the fighting parties.
Romero completed this print shortly after the canonization of 18th century Spanish missionary Junípero Serra, which resulted in public controversy over forced religious conversion and brutality towards the indigenous population in the Southwest. The artist followed up the lithograph with a ceramic piece on the same topic.
Romero applies a similar palette for Don’t Shoot Diego (2015). While Diego is the name of the artist, he ironically shares his name with Don Diego de Vargas, the Spanish Governor of New Spain, the territories around Santa Fe de Nueva México. Romero adds, in the lower right. that this conversation is conveniently translated from Spanish.
Again, Romero suggests the unfairness in the conflict as the Spaniards bear guns and wear chain mail versus the unarmed women standing in the doorway. Cloaked in humor and a comic book format and style, Romero can explore the relationship between the indigenous people of the Southwest, the Church, and colonization to illuminate this uncommonly known history.
Romero enjoys citing terms to explain his art process, including “Pop appropriation” and “pueblofication.” He likes to borrow current pop culture imagery, but changes it, or as he describes, “indigenizes” it, bringing Native American history and culture to the forefront.
The 2018 lithograph Pueb Fiction (State I) references Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film, Pulp Fiction. Romero quotes an iconic promotional image for the movie that showcases actress Uma Thurman coiffed in a blunt bob. She props herself on a bed, smoking a cigarette with a gun and open magazine on the bed—all elements contributing to a femme fatale persona. In Romero’s version, Thurman shares the same attitude, but is now clothed in traditional Cochiti attire for the July 14 feast day while reading a book on Cochiti culture.
Abstract designs typically frame Romero’s figurative scenes in his earthenware pottery and the three prints in the collection. While the artist may have some preconceived ideas for the form, he says that he listens and responds to the clay, considering it a collaboration with the medium. In the museum’s three prints, there is an interruption in the checked geometric pattern around the perimeter in his work. In Pueblo pottery, line break is a spirit trail. The break ensures that the artist’s spirit is no longer connected to the pot; both the pot and the artist can go on their separate journeys.
Look for Romero’s work in the upcoming exhibition at FWMoA Landfall Press: Five Decades of Printmaking (August 19 – November 12, 2023).
i “Cochiti Pueblo Potter Diego Romero, Identity Episode,” Craft in America, December 28, 2019, 05:03 to 05:06, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEH2fp1HJzI.
iiNancy Walkup, “Diego Romero: Cartoonist in Clay,” Davis , July 31, 2014, https://www.davisart.com/blogs/schoolarts-room/diego-romero-cartoonist-in-clay/.
iii “Cochiti Pueblo Potter Diego Romero, Identity Episode,” Craft in America, December 28, 2019, 0:13 to 0:46, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEH2fp1HJzI.