San Juan la Laguna
The Paintings of
Brothers Antonio & Julian
By Joseph Johnston
Antonio Coche Mendoza was the first oil painter in San Juan la Laguna. After he finished his basic studies, he asked his father to pay for him to study with San Pedro artist Mariano Gonzalez Chavajay. Mariano had previously taught his brother Matias and Emilio Gonzalez Morales. Antonio apprenticed himself to Mariano for several months until his father decided that Antonio had learned enough. Armed with a few old paints and brushes that Mariano gave to him, Antonio set out on his own. At this point, Nicolas Reanda Quieju was one of the few Santiago Atitlán store owners who would buy paintings from artists, so Antonio began bringing him his paintings. Antonio soon established a good reputation for himself.
Antonio was still young and living at home when he decided to teach his younger brother Julian how to paint. Julian, a person of few words, quickly showed an ability and desire to paint. Julian was the first of many of Antonio’s family members who learned to paint. Antonio was the oldest child in his family. As a successful artist, he began earning many times more than he could hope to earn as a campesino working on the land. He soon married. Antonio knew that the wives of brothers Mariano and Matias Gonzalez Chavajay had become painters and were assisting their husbands, so he next taught his wife, Angelina Quic de Coche, how to paint. Angelina was the third Tz’utuhil Maya woman artist. Shortly thereafter, Antonio also taught her brother Pedro Remijo Quic Ixtamer. Pedro Remijo showed promise and painted a few exceptional works but then devoted himself to doing paintings he knew would sell. Around the same time, Pedro Remijo began helping local people set up computers. This proved to be a profitable enterprise, and like many new artists, he soon dropped painting in favor of more profitable work. Antonio then taught another brother, Gregorio. Gregorio knew from his older brothers’ experiences what the local galleries would buy, and rather than trying to forge a new path, he generally catered to what the galleries requested. Two younger brothers also learned to paint, bringing the total to five of Coche Mendonza brothers who were artists. It is typical of Central American countries that many members of one family will choose the same profession. Unlike their older brothers, who want to be known as artists, the three younger brothers seem content to earn their living painting what the galleries and tourists want.
The most interesting story among the artists taught by Antonio is about his brother Julian. Julian had been painting for a couple of years when the family decided to pay for him to go to the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plasticas in Guatemala City. At this point Antonio was not married, so the income both he and Julian generated helped pay for Julian’s schooling. This was an unprecedented move among the self-taught Tz’utuhil artists. I worried about how it would change Julian’s painting, because I felt doubtful that his teachers would respect who he was as a Tz’utuhil Maya artist. He had painted at least one theme, “Division en la Iglesia San Juan la Laguna,” that was astounding for an artist so young. I was able to keep track of the changes in his art, both by visiting him and by seeing the paintings, often class assignments, that he took to my friend Diego Puzul’s art gallery in San Pedro. I shared my concerns with Diego, because I felt that Julian was one of the more promising artists. My concerns proved not to be unfounded. After finishing three years of art school, Julian had learned many techniques but had lost his own way. He brought paintings done in three or four distinct styles to Diego’s gallery. The paintings were well done, but none of these styles was particularly outstanding or original. He still painted some paintings in the Tz’utuhil style of painting, but these had elements of European styles mixed in and, thus, had lost some of the distinctly Maya feel. Julian began assisting Mariano Gonzalez Chavajay with his large paintings, because Mariano always had more requests than he was able to do himself. When his brother Antonio Coche won first place in the Biennial de Paiz, Guatemala’s most prestigious art competition, he and Antonio provided the galleries with versions of the painting in a variety of sizes, replacing the ones that had been sold. Whereas the other Tz’utuhil Maya artists had their own style and knew where they were going, Julian was floundering. He appeared more content to paint what other people requested of him, than to assert himself and discover his own path.
Julian had graduated from art school at least ten years before, when, in January of 2007, I arrived in Guatemala. I heard gossip from artists about the new basura (trash) Julian was painting. When I first saw the paintings, however, I totally disagreed. While it was true that his new paintings, done in a cubist style with Maya themes, had little connection to the Tz’utuhil Maya style typical of San Pedro and San Juan, the paintings were not only beautiful and original but also very carefully executed. I showed them to my friend Vicente Cumes, whom I always ask if I want to test my opinion, and he concurred. It seems as if finally Julian has found his own path, albeit a path very different from the other artists, and a path he would not have come upon without his art school training.