A LATIN INVASION!

What a wealth of Latin talent currently on display at the Bergamot Station galleries! There were Carlos & Elsa & Gilbert & Dora and Javier & Gustavo and Jaime. I might have missed others—my time in the galleries there was regrettably limited.

Carlos & Elsa & Gilbert & Dora are at CraigKrull Gallery. Carlos is the late Carlos Almaraz, whose work is also prominently exhibited in Playing with Fire, a current retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was married, during his all-too-brief life span, to Elsa Flores. Gilbert is (the also, sadly late) Gilbert “Magu” Lujan, who was working with and alongside Carlos and Elsa back in the 1970s and 80s and who, with them, was a prime mover in the “Chicanismo” movement—which they all managed to transcend with the strength of their individual vision as artists. Magu also has an important current retrospective, Atzlan to Magulandia, at the UC Irvine gallery, which I have not yet seen. Dora is the ceramic artist Dora De Larios, whose longevity happily persists until this day. The gallery’s exhibition is a powerful and moving tribute to these artists, whose work was essential to the long-delayed elevation of Latin art and culture to a rightful place in their California home.

Carlos and Elsa—may I presume to call them by the names with which I am so familiar?—are shown side by side in a gallery dedicated to their work. Of the two, to judge by what is on display, Carlos was the more profoundly engaged in the history of Latin culture, beginning in ancient Mesoamerica and continuing to thrive in the contemporary world...

Carlos Almaraz, Baby Face, 1986, pastel on paper, 24 x 30”

His paintings are frequently playful, fantastic, always infectiously energetic and vivid, working with iconography that ranges from the landscape of dream to fiery freeway crashes. They explore and expose both the artist’s inner consciousness and the social realities of the outside world.

Elsa’s paintings are more purely lyrical, in my view. She works mostly with landscape and figure in thickly, seductively applied layers of paint...

Elsa Almaraz, Maya’s Chair, 1985, oil and encaustic on linen, 12 x 9”

... as much an exploration of her medium as her subjects. Echoes of van Gogh in the above! A pink chair, rather than a yellow one. Am I fantasizing to see a hint of feminist protest here?

Magu has two rooms at the gallery. One is almost entirely devoted to his iconic and often hilariously exaggerated images of lowrider cars...

Gilbert “Magu” Luján, 52 Custom Chevy Fleetline, 1992, acrylic and ink on paper, 18.375 x 23.125”

... some seemingly throwaway items on scraps of paper, but always drawn with masterful ease and fluency. He is well known for the letters he would send to friends (I am fortunate to have a couple myself!), their envelopes wildly decorated with these fantasy cars. But Magu was also obsessively concerned with other icons of Latin culture, and for a long while a leading activist in the promotion of Mexican American ideas and values. The available selection of his work in this show represents much of what he was about in mostly small scale, but leaves a great deal untold about his more expansive work as an artist.

I was delighted to be introduced to Dora De Larios’s work, which I have seen in parks and other public spaces without even knowing they were hers (there is, in particular, one striking, massive wall-sized installation at the Montage hotel in Laguna Beach). Her smaller works include both beautiful ceramic vases and bowls with intricate incised or raised decoration...

Dora De Larios, Untitled, 2017, stoneware, 5.5 x 12 x 12”

... and ritualistic, animalistic objects...

Dora De Larios, Amazon Goddess, 2017, slab built unglazed stoneware with iron oxide, 27 x 11 x 9”

... that hark back to the centuries old traditions of pre-Columbian art—but with an indisputably contemporary flair. All are delightful to the eye. And, whether utilitarian or sculptural in reference, these are the kind of objects that seem to demand the touch of your hands, to get the full “feel” for their magical presence.

There’s a similar quality to the work of Jaime Guerrero at Skidmore Contemporary Art. Guerrero is also inspired by Mesoamerican culture and ritual, and creates figures that are, in some cases, copies of actual relics and, in others, creatures of his own imagination...

Jaime Guerrero, Seated Ruler, blown and sculpted glass, 10” x 5” x 5”, 2017

The kicker is that he makes them not in clay, but in glass. Having learned the basic craft of glass blowing at the feet of a Murano master, he has adapted it to his own vision and purpose, teaching himself the means to almost perfectly simulate in his glass sculptures the appearance of clay and other stone surfaces. The exhibition, appropriately titled “Contemporary Relics: A Tribute to the Makers,” is stunningly installed (the design work of the artist’s wife), with a variety of figures and masks, ranging from the quite tiny to the quite large. They are a tribute to an aesthetic value that has become rare in the contemporary world: hand-craftsmanship.

William Turner Gallery hosts exhibitions by two painters, Gustavo Ramos Rivera and Javier Pelaez. Ramos Rivera’s large-scale, largely abstract paintings play with expansive fields of brilliant color interspersed with bold line drawings and floating abstract forms that have the feel of a personal, esoteric iconography.

Ramos Rivera, Al Mal Tiempo Buena Cara (A Good Face for Bad Times), 2015, oil on canvas, 84 x 84 inches

They inherit from the tradition of painters like Joan Miro, and at times share something of the ferocious, impulsive spontaneity of a Jean-Michel Basquiat. We sense in his paintings a sturdy commitment to an individual vision, along with a passion for medium and process.

A newcomer to the Los Angeles art scene, Pelaez comes to the William Turner Gallery from Mexico City, where the artist has an established reputation. Coming from an initially realistic tradition, he experimented at length with images in which natural objects (such as flowers) were distorted into glittering, fluid abstractions of pure color, in which the process of their making became the focus of attention. In this first Los Angeles exhibition, Pelaez shows a remarkable series of paintings in which evocatively painted floating rocks...

Javier Peláez, PRGB4, 2017, oil on canvas, 35 x 42 inches

... reminiscent of those irregular moons of satellites we see in images from outer space, hover in spaces ambiguously defined by severely divided monochrome backgrounds. The Baconesque effect of figure and ground is accentuated in a recent small diptych (the snapshot image below was kindly provided by the gallery, awaiting a more precise one) where the image we see in one panel shatters in its neighbor into smears and fragments of exploding paint...

Javier Peláez, MATERIA I, 2017, oil on mdf board, 15.7 x 11.8 inches

... as the illusion of the rock’s physical presence dissipates (as the flowers, above) into a display of pure color and paint.

With important exhibitions throughout the area (see also, especially, the current show at the Hammer Museum, Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985), Latin art is certainly making its presence felt this fall, and with a welcome, passionate embrace of life and social conscience. Perhaps we are becoming a “sanctuary city” in more ways than one!

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