Alfredo Ramos Martinez's "Head of a Nun"

Alfredo Ramos Martinez's "Head of a Nun." (Pasadena Museum of California Art / January 28, 2014)

Alfredo Ramos Martínez was a few weeks shy of 58 when he packed up his studio and, with his wife and daughter, moved from Mexico City to Los Angeles in 1929. He arrived just in time for the epic collapse of the economy. Not surprisingly, the Great Depression is either subtext or frame of reference for much of the art he produced in L.A. before his death almost 17 years later.

At the Pasadena Museum of California Art, "Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California" attempts to come to terms with the work he produced here. The show was organized by guest curator Amy Galpin of the San Diego Museum of Art. (Unfortunately there is no catalog.) The first survey of its kind, it is installed in four thematic sections — "L.A. Stories," "Many Women," "Religious Piety" and "Forever Mexico" — rather than chronologically.

But the exhibition is only partly successful in its aim.

Ramos Martínez gets subtly cast as a subversive artist — not a rabble-rouser like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, but a gentler compatriot of those Mexican muralists, who were also painting in the U.S. at the time. His paintings, however, do not sustain the interpretation.

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Ramos Martínez painted murals for clients in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Victorville, San Francisco, San Diego and Ensenada, the coastal town south of Tijuana. Many murals still exist.

But his easel paintings and drawings are not often seen. "Picturing Mexico" brings together 61 examples. For context, it also includes a small selection of mostly works on paper and a few small sculptures by Jean Charlot, Donal Hord, Henrietta Shore and other Southern California artists.

The best Ramos Martínez works are on paper — specifically, conte crayon drawings and tempera paintings made on newsprint sheets taken from classified ad sections in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times and other newspapers. Newsprint provided an inexpensive support for drawings during a straitened economic period.

Perhaps taking a cue from the Cubist collages of Picasso and Georges Braque, which incorporated bits of newspapers, Ramos Martínez also used the found columns of printed text to comment on the imagery he chose to paint on top of it. Take the handsome "Head of a Nun" (1934), her profile capped by the elaborate, folded wimple of her religious order's habit.

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Layered against an upraised hand, Ramos Martínez painted the sorrowful, contemplative profile on a page of business news. Tough stories of struggling recovery in credit markets and pleading advertisements searching for capital investments form the environment for a mournful woman whose spiritual journey in life is defined by having taken a vow of poverty.

The drawing's style, executed in black tempera paint with white highlights and pale color washes, is typical of Ramos Martínez's work. Linear geometry, shaded by hatched brushwork, creates the sculptural suggestion of a shallow relief. The figure has the look of an architectural ornament.

Stylized, symmetrical, streamlined, static and elegant in its appeal to timelessness, it is emblematic of Art Deco. The style first emerged in France, flourishing internationally between World War I and World War II.

Ramos Martínez studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City, which was structured according to the training protocols of its French predecessor. (He was born in Monterrey, Nueva León, in 1871.) From 1900 to 1910 he worked in Paris.

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When he arrived in L.A., the Art Deco style was in full swing — epitomized by the lavish, black-and-gold Richfield Oil Company Building, completed the same year near the corner of Flower and 6th Streets. Back home in Mexico City, meanwhile, construction of the Palace of Fine Arts, long postponed by the Mexican Revolution, was just about to be revived; inside the frothy white meringue of its traditional Beaux Arts shell, a spectacular Art Deco interior spoke to national ambitions for industrial progress.

Art Deco style runs throughout Ramos Martínez's work. In that regard he's L.A.'s Tamara de Lempicka, although without the fashionable, high society sheen of the aristocratic Polish painter.

Large, assertive paintings of monumental female heads cast an anonymous Maya peasant as the Machine Age equivalent of an architectural caryatid on an ancient Peloponnesian temple. (The artist's wife, Maria, was from the Maya region of Oaxaca.) His landscapes transform rolling hills and fields into rhythmic patterns of geometric curves, fronting theatrical mountain backdrops. Campesinos on horseback are always rendered frontally or in strict profile.

What's unusual about this Art Deco treatment is its nearly exclusive application to rural and agrarian subjects. Deco is a machine style, propelled by a 1920s era of explosive industrial manufacture and the beginnings of mass production. It emphasized modern ideals of urban progress, but Ramos Martínez deployed it for romanticized depictions of rustic Mexico.

Ramos Martínez was a talented decorative painter. I don't mean that as a pejorative, either. Decoration at its best is not simple to achieve. To decorate is to honor, and his paintings and drawings plainly mean to confer distinction on the people and places that represent his national and cultural origin.