The struggle of Mexican workers against a backdrop of economic turmoil is a hallmark of the newsprint drawings, where his Art Deco style is most refined. In Depression-era Southern California, those who avoided repatriation to Mexico suffered the added travails of day-laborers, heavily worked and poorly paid. Ramos Martínez honors them in lovely, sometimes wince-inducing, always compassionate images.
"The Loaders" (circa 1932) shows four peasants engaged in exhausting labor, heavy bales or boxes strapped to their backs. The figures form an almost classical frieze, as if adapted from an old Roman sarcophagus. The workers are rendered on a page of real estate ads.
A dozen years later, "The Weavers" (1944) employs a similarly classical motif. This time it repeats two nearly identical images of a woman kneeling at a loom. These industrious domestic workers are drawn on top of Help Wanted ads.
"Man in Bondage" (1940) has Catholic overtones of suffering martyrdom, its cruelly roped subject — depicted upside down and from behind — an anonymous Everyman. Nearly transparent, the restrained but monumental body is marked by row upon row of ads for men and women desperately seeking work.
Here the printed texts are practically captions for portions of the picture. For example, a woman leans in from the side, protectively laying her hand on the bound man's back; she draws your eye straight to the classified ads' subject heading for "Nurses."
These drawings are highly personal. By contrast, most of the easel paintings and mural studies seem necessarily to respond to the commercial demands of a conservative Southern California marketplace.
Ramos Martínez's stylish, pastoral paintings of an idealized Mexico and its indigenous people remind one of Olvera Street, the fantasy commercial strip at L.A.'s historic core, where a romantic replica of traditional Mexican shops was packaged as part of a 1930 redevelopment plan. Not only is it hard to imagine the combative, roiling paintings of Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco in a remotely similar way, it is harder still to imagine the powers that be whitewashing a Ramos Martínez mural to censor aggressive content.
'Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California'
Where: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena
When: Through April 20. Closed Mon. and Tue.
Contact: (626) 568-3665, http://www.pmcaonline.org