by Peter Hartlaub
Mario Ayala is 25 years old, but his artistic influences go back decades. He remembers receiving drawings as a young boy from his father, a driver of 18-wheeler trucks who emigrated from Cuba.
Ayala, a San Francisco Art Institute alum, returns to the Bay Area with the Ever Gold (Projects) gallery exhibition “Pen Pal,” opening Thursday, April 13, with a reception Saturday, April 15. The collection of paintings and sculptures is inspired by the artwork and experience of California prison inmates. The exhibition also has an interactive element — the gallery space includes stationery and the addresses of San Quentin prisoners who are seeking correspondence.
Ayala recently moved back to Los Angeles after spending six years in the Bay Area, splitting time between San Francisco and Oakland. He graduated from the Art Institute in 2014, commuting by skateboard to the Chestnut Street school through the Stockton tunnel.
“I literally made one trip to S.F. before I moved there, and it was just to go skating with some friends,” Ayala says. “I fell in love with the space (because) you don’t really need a vehicle, and I didn’t have a car.”
Ayala exhibited in San Francisco and Oakland while he was in the Bay Area, including shows at the Guerrero Gallery in San Francisco. He just closed a show at the SADE gallery in Los Angeles, featuring a mixture of painting and sculpture. Among the pieces were barbecue grills painted with cultural imagery, bringing to mind the vibrant multidimensional art on some lowriders and other vehicles.
“Pen Pal” is a similarly immersive experience. Ayala has built a mixtape soundtrack (heavy on Bay Area artists including E-40 and Too Short) for the exhibit space, for inspiration to anyone writing prisoner correspondence.
But the centerpiece is three paintings, all using the cultural and religious symbolism that has defined his work. One painting, titled “Mr. Lonely,” includes a smiling devil daydreaming about a beautiful woman on one side of iron bars, while a flower blooms outside. The incarceration theme was motivated in part by Ayala’s younger sister, a law student who works with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that seeks to exonerate the wrongly convicted. Ayala also has collected prison artwork, which was on his mind while completing his “Pen Pal” artworks.
But Ayala says everything comes back to his father, who was a personal inspiration as well — working hard and keeping his truck routes close to Los Angeles when Ayala was young, so he could spend more time with his family. “The style he adopted is the same style that I’ve collected from prison art,” Ayala says. “A lot of ballpoint pen drawings of women, dogs, religion. It comes down to the cultural significance of what those images are. It’s similar to the images I’m using in the paintings, just in a different medium.”