I hope I live long enough to witness the end of art exhibitions based on ethnicity or gender. Their arrival was stimulating, for it signaled public awareness that whole spheres of creative achievement could no longer go unrecognized.
But as the years have passed, minorities and women have been absorbed into the Establishment about as fast as oil into water. We still have art shows that mourn the unfairness of it all even as they celebrate unsung artists.
The latest is "Only in L.A.," at the Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park (through July 20). According to the catalogue, the exhibition aims only to "reflect some of the rich cultural diversity of Los Angeles."
A few paintings could accomplish that vague goal; the 89 assorted works shown do it more so--but in such a confusing way that they have little impact.
This exhibition is basically a higgledy-piggledy affair that bites off more than it can chew--and we can digest--in an attempt to be comprehensive. Though curator Marie de Alcuaz has limited the artists to 27 and the ethnic groups to three immense ones--Latinos, Asian-Americans and black Americans--no further curatorial premise is in evidence.
Lacking works by the most prominent artists of these ethnic groups, the show wasn't intended to be a complete survey. But neither does it make many introductions. The emotional and conceptual tone of the show is equally confusing: Mixing poetry with politics, root-gathering with hybrid harvesting, the best that "Only in L.A." can hope to achieve is a glorification of diversity. Yet even that breaks down because the quality of the art is uneven.
Casting about for a sensible way to organize this experience, we find that the works fall loosely into four somewhat slippery categories: those that take a political stance, those that search for roots or identity, the products of quiet assimilation and the results of private, internal explorations.
The politically inclined pieces grab attention by the usual means--vivid colors, graphic imagery and strong messages. Among them, El Salvador immigrant Juan Edgar Aparicio makes an impressive debut with painted wood sculptures of a displaced Salvadoran family, a politicized Madonna and a pair of men imprisoned in an Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center. Aparicio is a self-taught artist who infuses folk tradition with social criticism. His accessible, quite sophisticated work could turn charming or it could become this year's radical chic, but for now it looks authentic and terrific.
Guillermo Bert, who was born in Chile, takes a subtler approach in pastels that invest animals with human feelings and let clothing stand in for human beings.
On the other hand, the unsubtle East Los Streetscapers group shows a lurid "minimural" merging a deer-hunting ritual ceremony with the random violence that has stereotyped the Chicano community. Daniel Martinez's installation of mixed-media monsters--all saw toothed, spike-legged and nasty--is concerned with survival in a hostile environment.
John Valadez and Patssi Valdez also confront the nastiness of modern urban life. Valadez's most arresting views are surrealistic pastels, with cropped sections of sleek female nudes (with red, blue or orange skin) floating above black-and-white street scenes. Valdez's 7-foot-tall triptych, a hand-colored photographic collage, portrays the city as an ominous wasteland and its inhabitants as grotesque young cynics. Valdez's statement says she is "much concerned with breaking stereotypes and representing a positive image of Latin people." Her exhibited work doesn't do that, but it's a powerful indictment of a sick society.
Xin Han's oils depicting punk kids and graffiti-covered New York subways might appear to be politically inspired, but they are just a Chinese-American's view of a thoroughly American spectacle, "full of excitement, nervous energy and potential violence." The paintings are flawed--they turn mushy as you approach them--but they suggest that cultural confrontations would be a more interesting theme than the ragged celebration in process at the Muni.
Among the most interesting works involved with a search for identity or connections to tradition are Aya Kimura's elegant ladder-like structures (of black bamboo and linen) and Meibao Nee's photo-interview project combining portraits of Asian immigrants with text about their experiences.
The quiet assimilators--including Hoon Kwak and blacks Alonzo Davis and Matthew Thomas--tend to fade into the show's confusion either because they are not well represented or their sensibilities are overwhelmed by the current context. Kerry Marshall holds up well, however. His black Venuses with bright red hearts pull off a fascinating mix of mystical symbolism.
Among other young talents worth watching are Margaret Garcia, who shows expressionistic portraits; Elsa Flores, whose shadowy images fairly drip with pigment, and Cynda Valle, who seems to be going a dozen directions at once. Among other things, she is working into stitchery--sequined areas and metallic patterns combined with paintings--that could be productively developed. Her work stews in frustrated conflicts between styles and imagery, but when she decides what she wants to say, she certainly has the means to say it.
Generally, the most interesting work in the show has the strongest ethnic connections, which proves that the concept isn't all wrong; it just needs to be severely edited. There's no question that much of juice of Los Angeles art comes from the city's mix of cultures. If I live long enough to witness the end of art exhibitions based on ethnicity or gender, I hope I won't also witness total homogenization.