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Mexican Folk Arts Star in Northridge Show

<i> Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for Westside/Valley Calendar</i>

Mexican folk art captured Nelson Rockefeller’s heart. Beginning in 1933 until just before his death in 1979, he made several trips to Mexico, choosing objects for his collection in the marketplaces of small villages and the workshops and homes of the artisans.

In the mid-1980s, his daughter, Ann Rockefeller Roberts, bestowed more than 350 pieces of her father’s collection upon the Mexican Museum in San Francisco. The majority of that museum’s Rockefeller holdings of 20th-Century Mexican ceramics, toys, dishes and decorative objects, ritual objects, glassware, lacquerware and clothing is on view at the Art Galleries at Cal State Northridge.

Accompanying this exhibit is a Day of the Dead altar sponsored and built by the Mexican Arts and Heritage Council of the San Fernando Valley, and a three-dimensional lowrider car created out of wood by Los Angeles artist Frank Romero. A public reception from 4 to 6 p.m. today will feature music by Mariachi Aztlan and a large Mexican food spread, gallery Director Louise Lewis said.

“Mexico has had a strong cultural imprint on the San Fernando Valley,” Lewis said. “It has been our goal to open the gallery to global aspects of art to accommodate the multicultural aspects of Los Angeles and specifically the neighborhoods that surround our university and the community that attends the university.”

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In pursuit of this goal, the booking of the Mexican Museum’s Rockefeller collection in the CSUN gallery occurred about two years ago, before Lewis was aware of plans for the citywide celebration of Mexican art to augment the L.A. County Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries,” opening Oct. 6. Coincidentally, the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles will concurrently show 135 works from the San Antonio Museum of Art’s Rockefeller Collection of Mexican folk art.

Both exhibits were reviewed last week by William Wilson, Los Angeles Times art critic, who said they “act as overture to the oncoming hubbub,” referring to the County Museum of Art show. “It seems entirely apt that they should be devoted to the Mexican folk arts.”

Lewis and her colleagues, Ann Burroughs and Jim Sweeters, chose to display the pieces in large groupings, free of plexiglass cases, so viewers could see them as they would in a marketplace. “We’ve put up low stanchions to satisfy the need for security, but to also give the gallery the casual, natural, open feeling of a market,” Lewis said.

Among the works are glazed and unglazed ceramic jugs, pitchers, pots and plates; painted masks carved out of wood; and clothing--sombreros, huaraches and woven wool serapes, belts and bags. Colorfully painted toy banks, whistles, dolls, miniature figurines, dishes and boxes have been organized in one area; richly colored utilitarian glass goblets, plates and candle holders in another. Lacquered wood chests represent one of the oldest kinds of Mexican folk art. Although the provenance of most of the pieces is known, the artisans who made them are largely unknown.

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Among the decorative arts, however, are several hand-modeled clay pieces by Teodora Blanco (1928-80) of Atzompa, Oaxaca, considered one of Mexico’s great ceramic artists. Her groups of small, charming animals playing musical instruments represent her early work. In her later years, she dedicated herself to making decorative dolls. The impressive, large-scale figures of market women, women and babies, and women surrounded by animals have been appliqued with flowers and birds.

Adjoining the exhibition in the Main Gallery is the Mexican Arts and Heritage Council’s Day of the Dead altar. Combining pre-Columbian and Latino traditions for death, the altar is meant to be an upbeat celebration for the return of a deceased loved one’s spirit.

In the South Gallery, Frank Romero’s deep violet 2-foot-wide, 12-foot-long and 4 1/2-foot-high wood lowrider with neon in the wheel wells and 21-inch bicycle wheels (“A lowrider has to have spoked wheels,” Romero said.) adds an element of what he calls urban folk culture to the show.

“There are things in the Chicano community that have persisted for generations. The tradition of lowering your car and putting little wheels on it and painting it deep purple exists. I’m an artist; I happen to be Chicano, and I do lowriders, except I make them out of wood, paint them purple and have a lot of fun doing it. They’re a comment on a lot of the things that I see people doing in the neighborhood here.

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“I think people like my cars because, Chicano or not, they’re anthropomorphic sort of people. They’re icons of our society, the things we live with.”

Monday at 10 a.m. in the gallery, Mimi Novom of the Mexican Arts and Heritage Council of the San Fernando Valley will speak on the collection and Mexican folk art in general. At 5 p.m., Frank Lechuga, director of CSUN’s School of the Arts Students Services Program, will also give a talk, comparing Chicano art with Aztec symbolism and Mexican folk art.

Guided tours of the exhibit in English and Spanish are available, but reservations are required. Call (818) 885-2156.

“Nelson Rockefeller Collection of Mexican Folk Art” at Cal State Northridge Art Galleries, 18111 Nordhoff St., through Oct. 26. Open noon to 4 p.m. Monday and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Admission free. Artist Bert Miripolsky lived all over the world between 1946 and 1971--Mexico, Paris, Vienna, Thailand, Iran, Indonesia and South Korea--working as an artist and advising such institutions as the State Department and the Ford Foundation on incorporating the visual arts into education programs on health, family planning and the arts. During these years abroad, he and his wife, Roberta, had two sons and two daughters. Andre, born in Paris, is also an artist, known for his large, colorful free-standing and wall collages. His other son, Eban, born in Israel, is a photographer.

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“Miripolsky: Father & Sons,” a show at the Finegood Gallery in the West Valley Jewish Community Center, brings their artwork together for the first time.

“One day Bert, who teaches art classes here, was telling me about Andre’s work, and I suggested that we have a Miripolsky family show because it fits in nicely with what we like to do here, which is support the family, the arts and education,” said Bob Litvak, the center’s director.

Eban’s moody black-and-white photographs, many of them portraits, evoke a sense of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Bert’s color-filled, abstract and nonobjective paintings, a small fraction of the 300 he did while he lived abroad, couldn’t be more different from his younger son’s work.

It is Andre’s “Wall of Me,” 65 brightly colored, whimsical caricatures of his own face, painted in oil on various-sized canvases and arranged smack up against each other, that monopolizes one’s attention. Each portrait expresses an emotion, idea, or feeling through a revealing facial expression and an accompanying one-word description such as fear, fun, boredom, love or anxiety.

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The face of heartache is confronted by a butcher knife. Shy has his hands over his eyes, anxiety a hypodermic needle to the mouth, and depression includes a gun and a needle. But love is a happy heart-shaped face, and growth is in the form of a tree.

“I want a certain optimism to come across,” said Andre, who explained that the idea for this concept occurred when he turned 40 and went into therapy.

The only constant elements in each portrait are Andre’s red hair and what he calls his “new nose,” which is the result of seven operations in nine months after being critically injured in an automobile accident in 1984. Out of that experience came a book of 54 collage illustrations with thought bubbles, jingles and slogans called “Fear No Art--A Crash Course in Reality.” His current project, which seems to be a distillation of the previous one, is still in progress.

“Miripolsky: Father & Sons” continues at the Finegood Gallery, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills, through Sept. 26. Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Sunday, and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. The gallery is closed certain days in observance of Jewish High Holy Days. Call (818) 587-3300.

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