Artist René Yañez & San Francisco’s Great Tortilla Conspiracy
The “Artist You Should Know” series highlights Bay Area artists who are doing incredible work, it’s our way of supporting the creative community and helping to keep San Francisco a strange and wonderful place.
By Ray Conteur
What would San Francisco look like without the influence of Frida Kahlo? What about Día de Los Muertos? These are the kinds of questions that we philosophical San Franciscans would ponder in an alternate universe. One where René Yañez didn’t bring his magical influence to our vital, vibrant area.
Although René passed in 2018, at the age of 75 after a battle with cancer, his strong visual art and community spirit live on today. With that in mind, the opportunity to interview him directly has gone. However, his close community of friends and family were able to provide a peek into his world.
The Start of a Movement
A lot of what you see today in San Francisco’s storied Mission District: The murals, the galleries, and the art houses, were influenced by the late “Padrino de la Misión”. Going back to the 1970s, René Yañez has been a catalyst for the rise of the Bay Area ChicanX Art Movement.
Yañez was part of a group that brought the artwork of Kahlo to San Francisco. In addition to bringing innovative art to the area, René fostered community by discovering other talents and supporting and promoting other artists. One such group is Culture Clash, a successful comedy troupe that René founded in 1984.
His celebrated career saw accomplishments like co-founding and directing the Galería de la Raza, initiating and curating Día de Los Muertos altar installations at the SOMARTS Cultural Center, protesting gentrification, and promoting human rights. In the final months of his life, he was invited by the Luggage Store Gallery to have a solo show: Into the Fade. In case you are wondering, they do not sell actual luggage!
Medium(s): installations, light shows, performances, painting, printmaking, assemblage, curating and directing.
As an artist, Yañez experimented with all sorts of mediums, ranging from light shows to print making. Much of his work is located at the University of Berkeley Bancroft Library Archives, where it is stored safely in a temperature controlled environment, as well as local art murals, and even on a tortilla.
In the above video you can see Yañez wheatpasting artwork on Valenica Street. Video by Río Yañez.
The Great Tortilla Conspiracy
Yes, tortillas. One special, surviving, and thriving project that René co-founded is starting to get national recognition. Together, René, his son Río, and printmaker Jos Sances launched The Great Tortilla Conspiracy at the de Young museum in 2006. Art Hazelwood, an integral group member, joined the group about 4 years into their practice. Their goal was to create art that could be political, funny, and placed on food.
Renee M. Baldocchi, Former Director of Public Programs, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, recalls her first impression of the group, “I remember walking into the Kimball Education Gallery, to see how the inaugural Great Tortilla Conspiracy was unfolding, and being greeted with the delicious smell of tortillas being grilled and silk screened by three smiling individuals, wearing white chef hats, and lab coats. René had the BEST sense of humor and worked with incredibly talented artists. René curated Cheech Marin’s Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge and the public programs associated with the exhibition. His all-inclusive programming made a profound impact on the museum and community.”
Once an underground project, The Great Tortilla Conspiracy has gained press with their creative, edible printmaking technique. Today, their art is featured in the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of “¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now.”
Art You Can Eat
Tortillas were always their canvas of choice, but the art was not always edible. As detailed by Río Yañez in a recent podcast with the de Young, the art used to be transferred “using iron-on-T-shirt transfer paper.” That is until the idea of Hershey’s chocolate syrup came around. Group co-founder Jos Sances says that the syrup allowed them to “silk screen images onto the tortillas, add cheese and salsa, then eat.”
While Covid-19 has placed the group’s frontline communions on hold, you can still enjoy their work online.