A dark-haired youth in a Raiders jacket leaning against a blond mannequin in a ruffled wedding dress, a group of skeleton-faced Dia de los Muertos participants relaxing by a tombstone and an Aztec dancer reaching for a bottle of Canada Dry are among the eloquent but resolutely unromantic images in "L.A. Iluminado," an exhibition of photographs by eight Chicano artists.
The artists selected by curator Glenna Avila eschew the image/text paradigm that marks much current photographic practice in favor of conventional, so-called "straight" photography. Unlike many photographers working within the documentary and portrait traditions, however, these artists neither exploit nor exoticize their subjects. Their work arises out of a powerful consciousness of ethnicity, and a desire to record the complexities of negotiating ethnic identity in a largely unsympathetic time and place. As such, their work is explicitly political.
Most immediately riveting is Harry Gamboa Jr.'s "Chicano Male Unbonded" series, which subverts the popular stereotype of the Latino male. Gamboa's subjects--artists, writers, composers, phytochemists and students--are photographed from a low vantage point, endowing them with a monumental presence. Unsmiling, arms crossed or shoved in pockets, standing alone on dimly lit street corners or freeway embankments, the figures appear simultaneously dangerous and in danger. They insist that within power lurks vulnerability--and vice versa. Alejandro Rosas' coyly surreal "Latino Artists of Los Angeles" likewise functions both as a series of portraits and as a record of a thriving creative community; especially absorbing is his uncannily self-reflexive portrait of self-portraitist Alfredo de Batuc.
Monica Almeida, Jose Lopez Galvez and Ricardo Valverde work as "street" photographers, stalking street festivals, religious celebrations and funerals in order to capture the tumult, beauty and strong sense of community that marks the largest ethnic group in Los Angeles County. Galvez's photographs of a rally commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium exemplify the enormous power of understated reportage.
Less successful are the self-consciously "artistic" photographs--Christina Fernandez's "Transition" series, which superimposes and counterposes disparate images to create mysterious time-space continuums, and Frank Romero's hand-colored, soft-focus odes to a young, blond neighbor.
"L.A. Iluminado" takes the position that a community is most accurately pictured from within, that the vision of the outsider is somehow defective, skewed by ideological biases or plagued by recalcitrant stereotypes; compare Diane Arbus' desperately self-conscious embrace of "freakishness" to Laura Aguilar's matter-of-fact photographs of pierced and tattooed lesbian couples. But the corollary of this proposition is that the primary concern of artists should be the documentation of their particular subculture or ethnicity.
The danger of these dicta is that they lead directly to ghettoizing exhibitions which are convenient for the art Establishment, but intolerable for those artists systematically excluded from mainstream museum and gallery shows. One exhibition, however, cannot solve this complex problem. And in the meantime, "L.A. Iluminado" must be commended for bringing to light the work of several fine artists and the multiple realities of the L.A. Chicano community.
* Otis/Parsons Gallery, 2401 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 251-0555, through Sept. 21. Closed Sunday and Mondays.
Peculiarities of Perception: In art circles, people use phrases--perhaps too often--like "the commodification of the art object." Robert Millar's gold-swathed wedges remind us that the concept amounts to more than mere artspeak. Artist Louise Lawler once created gift certificates redeemable at the Leo Castelli Gallery. Millar does her one better by recasting Thomas Solomon's Garage as the Ft. Knox of art.
Befitting the recessionary climate, however, the vault is fairly empty, containing just 18 paintings shaped like asymmetrical ingots of shimmering gold. Like units of currency, the paintings are virtually uniform; like sentinels guarding a palace of fine art, they come in pairs.
Of course, critique is only a part of Millar's rich work. For he is also--and perhaps even primarily--interested in the peculiarities of perception. Millar's art occupies the uneasy terrain where painting meets sculpture, the minimal brushes up against the opulent, and light devolves into shadow.
It's all a matter of where you're standing; it's all perpetually in flux. Approached from the side, the works appear as thick black wedges of anodized aluminum, bulging uncomfortably toward the middle. Confronted head-on, their gold-leaf surfaces are bathed in sunlight, the slightly irregular contours exacerbating a hallucinatory shimmer.
If the paintings wink at the viewer, they also wink at art history. Their subtle skew conjures Robert Morris' post-minimal investigations into the fiction of perfect geometry; the hazy grid formed where the squares of gold leaf overlap recalls a long tradition of modernist abstraction--from Piet Mondrian to Sol LeWitt to Sherrie Levine. But where art history is predicated upon permanence, fixity and a linear progression, Millar's work stresses contingency, flexibility, and a multiplicity of readings. In this, it is the very model of post-modern art.
* Thomas Solomon's Garage, 928. N. Fairfax Ave., (213) 654-4731, through Sunday.
Too Many Ironies in the Fire: Once you get past the irony of an exhibition of art for public spaces being held in a gallery, "1%" demands serious attention. Getting past the irony, however, is no small matter, for what could be more private, more inaccessible and more exclusively middle class than a series of cool, white rooms whose main purpose is commerce? The gallery, according to Earth artist Robert Smithson, is a "non-site," cut off from time, space and experience; in the absence of a site, how are we possibly to approach the "site-specific" work of the four young artists showcased at Parker-Zanic?
If the idea of this exhibition is a contradiction in terms, the gallery, thankfully, did not quake before it. Responding to a recent statute that sets aside 1% of the budget of all new municipal construction for art, the gallery offers for consideration the work of Reggie Amos, Steven Appleton, Lesley Marlene Siegel and Paul Tzanetopoulos. These artists propose complex projects that diverge from recent public art, which has been either rigorously formalist or inoffensively decorative. They share a conceptual bent tempered by a commitment to the physical object, and a desire--exploited to varying degrees--to transform the passive pedestrian into an active observer of his or her surroundings.
Fascinated by the legions of local apartment buildings bearing the name of a favorite color ("Seafoam Apartments"), beloved children ("The Gayle Marc"), or merely a judicious compromise ("La Claire," because "Chanticleer" didn't fit), Siegel has undertaken a research project which incorporates photography, community history, found images and interviews in order to rescue the L.A. "dingbat" from architectural oblivion.
Here, she displays chipped and fading signs from the "Noelle" and the "Kiawa Terrace," both demolished in July; and photodocumentation of the "Close to You" and the "Only Just Begun," two Downey apartment buildings purchased by the Carpenters singing duo in the early '70s. "Apartment Living Is Great" is whimsical, self-consciously so. But this doesn't diminish the power of its inquiry into solipsism and vanity.
Questions of urban decay and renewal are also at the center of Appleton's project, although his approach is less witty than poetic. Appleton metaphorically rebuilds the recently razed Severance Building, beginning with an actual piece of the ornamental facade and extending it upwards via an armature of layered glass panes, each carbon printed with an element derived from the building's decorative scheme. The ghostly reconstruction is paired with an assemblage juxtaposing fragments from the site and old Community Redevelopment Agency no-trespassing signs. Raw yet elegant, the wall-mounted piece is successful as art; as public art, it is perhaps too self-contained.
Less compelling is Amos' model for a larger scale structure consisting of a row of yellow warning signs affixed to an aluminum extrusion, each bearing a silk-screened image of three phases of the moon. Amos uses the moon as a symbol of untouched beauty, and the danger sign to caution us from tampering with the increasingly fragile environment. The didacticism of the installation, however, works as do the signs--to propel us in the opposite direction.
Tzanetopoulos' mosaic of colored rectangles of recycled tire rubber doesn't merely encourage us to attend to our environment; it literally becomes our environment, covering the gallery floor from wall to wall. Initially, the piece works as an elegant satire--the worship of the beaten-up tires here metamorphosing into an exquisitely "tiled" floor. But it also works on a more hermetic level, for the pattern of the floor-covering is based upon a topographical model of a magnified swatch of plaid, the artist's long-standing fascination--a symbol, for him, of the encoding of disparate information. What Tzanetopoulos' proposal suggests is that the line between public art and private obsessions cannot so easily be drawn; what it thereby provides is legitimation for this very tricky exhibition.
* Parker-Zanic Gallery, 112 S. La Brea Ave., (213) 936-9022, to Sept. 14. Closed Sundays and Mondays.