Death--the natural phenomenon, the spiritual passage and...

Death--the natural phenomenon, the spiritual passage and the political event--preoccupies each of the artists in the current "L.A. Three" exhibition at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park's Pepper Grove.

In the works of Harry Gamboa Jr. and Barbara Carrasco, death is defined as a religious concept and a personal revelation; in the work of Patssi Valdez, it serves as a backdrop for explorations into personal identity.

The directness of these artists' approaches to the subject of death owes to the legacy of their common Latino heritage. Similarly, their interest in large-scale, public-oriented work, such as the installations here or their previous murals and performance works, extends the populist tradition begun by the great Mexican muralists in the 1930s.

In Gamboa's "Three Acts," writing spreads across three walls of a stark, timeless landscape. Large lavender, blue and green letters spell out the words:

There was eternal disorder in the silence which followed the expulsion of the species

It was a suspended moment of random absurdity

The thunder was terror. The lightning was error.

An image of a large blue missile, descending at an angle set to puncture all earthly peace, silently explains the bleak tone of the message. The jagged, neon-orange horizon and the oversized, blocky flower sprouting from it represent a planet distorted by war and abandoned to its chemically altered fate. Glossy black smudges dot the matte black sky, perhaps in evocation of the black rain said to have fallen in Hiroshima after the atomic blast.

Gamboa's words and imagery, though spare, possess a prophetic poignancy. They express the collective fears haunting all who ponder our tenuous survival in the nuclear age. By referring to the catastrophic event that has rendered the earth freakish and deserted as an "expulsion," Gamboa infuses his work with religious overtones, suggesting that the event be considered retribution for the collective sins of the entire species.

Carrasco's two works confront death from a more personal perspective, in terms of individual redemption. "Ascension" features a series of eight kites, cut out of black paper and pinned to the wall in an ascending row. The coffin-shaped kites sport crosses on their upper edges and wave tails studded with more crosses, in gold. Each kite bears a drawing of a young woman in profile, gaze tilted slightly upward and hands clasped in prayer.

In the first of the eight, the woman's face is rendered as a skull, in tones of gray and white. Each subsequent portrait is executed in a single vibrant hue, such as purple or crimson, with the final image fully multicolored, and hanging highest on the wall. Here, a glowing golden aura sheathes the praying woman as she revels in yellow rays emanating from a source above.

The series, with its puffy blue clouds and silhouetted flying birds scattered among the kites, presents both a literal and metaphoric message of ascension and salvation. With an earnestness about religious faith uncanny among artists of her generation, Carrasco offers the equation that belief and constant prayer yield purification and salvation after death.

Carrasco's other work, "Rest In . . . 7 Pieces," as evident in the title alone, lightens the subject of death with traces of wit and humor. The series' seven delicate-colored pencil drawings show skull-faced figures in costume and coffin, tailored to reflect their aspirations during life.

Carrasco, who has executed large-scale murals in Los Angeles, the Soviet Union and Nicaragua, says in an accompanying wall panel that the work stemmed from conversations she has had with a broad range of people about their death and what they want to be buried with.

In "Rest in Party," musical notes and confetti swim around a man coolly composed, wearing shades and playing a guitar. "Rest in Paint" shows a woman standing in a bucket of paint, with brushes in her pocket and a dripping flag in one hand. "Rest in Print," "Rest in Progress" and "Rest in Palimony" engage more serious social topics, gently urging one to reflect on the superficiality or significance of lifelong goals. The inevitable prospect of death functions here as motivation to define oneself and consolidate one's character in life.

Valdez, a founding member--with Gamboa and others--of the Los Angeles collaborative "Asco" (meaning nausea or disgust), presents an untitled installation wholly deficient of the depth of thought so apparent and provocative in Gamboa's and Carrasco's works.

The focal point of the installation is a three-tiered structure made to resemble a Spanish mission bell tower and recycled from the Centro Cultural's previous show. Valdez has overhauled it, covered it with runny splotches of spray paint, torn and crumpled paper and cellophane streamers.

Filling the arched spaces of the lower two tiers are identical portraits of a young woman drawn in yellow, blue and magenta, her face bisected by a vertical zigzag line. One side of her collar reads "Tijuana," the other "Los Angeles," but nowhere else in Valdez's piece does this potent issue of a Chicana's dual loyalties or double heritage emerge.

The walls on each side of the structure, spray-painted with human forms hovering over a cemetery or gathered in a crowd, seem haphazard and unresolved, as does the presence of two pewlike benches before them.

Valdez's confused project is particularly disappointing after experiencing the concise expressive power of the adjacent installations. But even if re-titled more accurately "L.A. Two Out of Three," the show is well-worth a visit. It continues through Feb. 15.

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