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Ray Abeyta

1956 Santa Cruz, New Mexico - 2014 Brooklyn, New York

Ray Martín Abeyta, a New Mexico-born artist known by East Coast friends as the “Mayor” of Williamsburg, a neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York where he has lived and worked for decades, died Monday following a motorcycle accident the day before. He was 58.

For years, an image of Ray Martín Abeyta’s painting Indios hung on a banner outside the New Mexico Museum of Art introducing passers-by, in a single stroke, to the scope of New Mexico’s rich artistic legacy.

The beguiling double portrait, painted in 2002, is memorable for its wild depiction of a Native of the New World with two sets of eyes next to that of an Indian from the East, portrayed as if he were a figure from Hindu myth. The painting underscores the type of misperceptions European explorers may have sent back to their Old World patrons and can also be seen as a riff on Christopher Columbus’ belief that, when he reached the New World, he was in Asia.

Abeyta, who was struck by a truck on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn on Sunday night, died early Monday morning at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.

He was born to a Basque family in the small village of Santa Cruz, near Española, in 1956 and was raised among the lowrider culture popular in the region. He earned his bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1982 from The University of New Mexico.

Abeyta had a penchant for driving classic cars, including a 1956 Ford F100 pickup, and for motorcycles, as well, including a 1968 Triumph.

His artworks show the heavy influence of 16th- through 18th-century Spanish baroque and Colonial styles, as well as containing decorative rococo elements. Abeyta merged his interest in traditional art forms with imagery and themes derived from contemporary Chicano culture.

In 1986, Abeyta left New Mexico and eventually settled in the North Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he met his wife, Alyssa, in 1989, and the two were married three years later. His intention, upon arrival in New York, was to make it as a neo-Expressionist. He supported himself by decorating showrooms for designer Ralph Lauren. The couple had two children: Isabela and Elijah.

Abeyta became a permanent fixture in Williamsburg, venturing into business partnerships with his wife, including the Brooklyn hangout Union Pool and a bar at the Hotel Delmano.

Abeyta remained close to his New Mexico roots, however, continuing to exhibit in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and abroad in museum shows and gallery exhibitions. Represented by the Owings Gallery, he had his last solo exhibition there, Profundo Baby!, in June.

Throughout his career, he continued to explore the effects of the lingering past on the present in works that deal with issues of identity, particularly on the theme of racial blending in Spanish art, and cross-cultural contact in the Americas. His artistic hybrids of the ancient and contemporary are provocative, symbolic and narrative compositions. Recognizing his work was part of a continuing tradition, historically significant to the Southwest, the New Mexico History Museum included his massive triptych La Tres in their exhibition Painting the Divine: Images of Mary in the New World, which opened in June and continues through March 13, 2016.

Las Tres was inspired by traditional images of Our Lady of Pomata. The three separate portraits of Our Lady that comprise the triptych, each resembling people of different racial backgrounds, reference Colonial-era casta paintings, in which figures were identified by characteristics associated with race.

In New Mexico, his paintings reside in the permanent collections the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, as well as the New Mexico Museum of Art. A monograph, Cuentos y Encuentros: Paintings by Ray Martín Abeyta, was published by the Museum of New Mexico Press in 2003.

Laura Widmar, director of the Owings Gallery, has known Abeyta since 2000. “People throw around the word “genius” pretty casually, but Ray was the real thing,” she said. “There is no one I know painting today that has Ray’s level of skill, but with Ray it wasn’t just the skill — he had a staggering intellect, and each of those pictures was informed and layered in so many ways. He could talk to you about one of his paintings for hours. He referenced ancient maps, sea charts, codexes, everything, and then mixed it all together with his own personal history.”

Although Abeyta left New Mexico a long time ago, New Mexico never left his work, she said. “He loved this place, its people, its history and its art.”

Santa Fe New Mexican by Michael Abatemarco Dec. 5, 2014