The Los Angeles Festival's emphasis on cultural diversity serves to remind us how culturally mixed the vocabulary of contemporary visual art has become. The festival, with its mandate to focus on the arts of the Southland's various ethnic groups, combined with the afterglow of the Museum of Contemporary Art's just-closed "A Primal Spirit," has made it abundantly clear that the work of contemporary visual artists cannot justifiably be roped off into isolated cultural communities. The artists may indeed base their work on their own heritage, but increasingly they are deeply affected by the conceptual movements and vocabulary of Western art that makes them participants in the globe-trotting '90s' "internationalization" of art.
"Voices From the African-American Community," curated by Josine Ianco-Starrels, presents five male black artists enmeshed in their community and heritage yet speaking with the cosmopolitan tongue of the new decade.
Some of the show's strongest work is by two photographers. Dennis Olanzo Callwood's boldly graphic black-and-white photographs of closely cropped black legs, hands and faces have the straightforward emotional bluntness of all documentary photography. Carefully composed into a vaguely abstract harmony of shapes, these images are compelling encounters with an unexpected reservoir of silence. Willie Middlebrook's greatly enlarged silver prints unite innovative darkroom techniques with emotion laden portraiture. These tender images of family and friends emerge from their dripping, liquid grounds to gingerly avoid schmaltz by the strength of their scale and careful manipulation of the image by the artist.
Charles Dickson's off-the-wall humor moves unencumbered between primitive and modern art. It is responsible for the wild-wheeled chariot "Bongo Kongo: Mobilization of the Spirit" and the color-spewing, formalized nonsense of "Tabernacle." Dickson is an enigma to be watched.
Paintings by Frank Williams are less interesting. Their penchant for idealized, emotional self-portraits painted in acid, artificial color hits you over the head with messages of confinement and alienation. Only in the triptych pastels "Rhythm" does that sense of strangeness link up with something really deep. The combination of three disparate images allows the landscape and human vulnerability to undergo a ritual transformation into something foreign, ominous and ancient. Mathew Thomas' pigment- and clay-encrusted paintings easily get bogged down in their thick surface explorations and all the visual references to Zen emptiness and religious icons. Not until the surface becomes a literal ground for strangely shaped totemic forms suspended in front of the painting does the rich color and the painting's form begin to vibrate into something wonderfully alive. (Long Beach Art Assn. Gallery, 447 Long Beach Blvd., to Sept. 24.)
Urban Debris: California painter Raymond Saunders is a world-traveling black artist whose work internalizes the cultures and imagery of the cities where he immerses himself. He collects pieces of signage, bits of old wrapping paper or other fragments of urban debris. He slaps this clutter onto large, black, painted grounds that read like old blackboards, newly asphalted streets or cosmopolitan billboards. Then he unites the whole with a loose structure of marks, hand lettering, graffiti or calligraphic splashes of bright, pure color. Even though the elements are spread around the black canvas panels like idle thoughts in the middle of the night, they maintain an intriguing sense of internal order.
If Saunders' paintings refer to his world travels, they are also right at home patching together concepts of abstraction and representation in a single image. In this freewheeling kind of formal exploration of painting's limits, Saunders goes several directions at once. On one hand, the paintings muse about issues. When that issue is the art world, as it is in one untitled painting, Saunders can present tiny, perfectly lovely, chalk rendered images of "primary form" eggs tumbled against the quiet cynicism of paint-by-numbers realism and elementary school hopscotch games of get-it-right advancement.
But in "Sameness in Etcetera" the artist shows that he can be intellectually formal by involving the painting's surface in a broad explosion of radiant color while intentional and random marks do battle for dominance. (Santa Monica College Art Gallery, 1900 Pico Blvd., to Oct. 27.)
Sound and Vision: East meets West in an exhibit of the same name at the Woman's Building, where Japanese artist Mineko Grimmer presents two of her always-appealing sound sculptures made with wooden boxes and dripping pyramids of frozen pebbles. As her structures go, these are particularly simple constructions relying on a single bar of brass or two strands of metal guitar wire to generate sound from the falling pebbles. But the addition of a strong side light on each shallow water-filled box means that the back wall is awash with moving reflections as the water is disturbed by each icy drip or pebble drop. It's a lovely animated display that makes full use of the subtle visual elements for which the artist is known.
Also showing are the small but haunting gouache on paper paintings of Hilary Baker. Reminiscent of Ed Ruscha's recent prints of contemporary icons, these linear drawings float mundane items like power lines, tractors and fences in a colored atmosphere of isolation and containment. As images of a rural America, these drawings are nondescript, thin to the point of being invisible and laced with a sense of desolation and holocaust. (The Woman's Building, 1727 N. Spring St., to Sept. 29.)