The exclamation points flanking Frank Romero's name on the wall at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard are a quick tip-off. This is art that virtually throbs with color and humor.
Walk in the front door and you find "Chicano Lowrider," an almost life-size sculpture of a curvaceous old car, framed by two large wooden palm trees. Just when you chalk it all off as an extravagant, affectionate kitsch, you notice the neon hood ornament--in the form of a prayerful, kneeling woman adapted from Mayan iconography.
Mayana in neon? Welcome to Romero's world.
Looking at Romero's assortment of paintings, prints, photographs, neon art and sculpture here, the viewer is left with a palpable impression of joy, flamboyance and intensity. Once you dig below the bright surfaces, you find a wealth of references, personal and nostalgic, and connected to Chicano culture and its roots.
Romero's is an aesthetic bristling with energy and also a circumspect focus on issues and images relating to his life as a Latino growing up in East L.A. Symbols float around in the gallery, often dealt with in series.
Car culture, Mayan and Mexican mythology, tension and violence in inner city Los Angeles, the tranquillity of New Mexican mountains--these are a few of the things making up Romero's image bank.
This is a key time in Romero's development. He has another show at the Plaza de la Raza in Los Angeles, and, coincidentally, you can also see examples of his work at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, in the "Ojo Abierto" show. The Forum is showing a few images from the same photographic series seen at the Carnegie.
But the Carnegie show presents the most generous outpouring of his work. Nothing if not prolific and innately experimental, Romero is a multimedia artist from the bottom up. This show, mind you, is a survey of only recent works.
What has he been up to recently? The "Sacred Taos Mountain" series finds the same peak painted in a myriad of different color schemes, all vibrantly realized in big, friendly brush strokes.
Romero likes to create variations on a theme, and the theme here is unexpectedly meditative, by his normally more extroverted standards. Then again, his oeuvre resists easy typecasting: There is a tender lyricism in his photography, especially the elliptical nude studies.
Also, one of his gifts is transformation of the mundane or volatile into something more sublime, or more whimsical.
By contrast again, the upstairs gallery is devoted to a series of small new neon pieces, designed by Romero and executed by neon artist Michael Flechtner. (Flechtner's work was seen last year at the neon art show at the Momentum Gallery in Ventura.)
In neon, Romero trains his eye on specific, culturally loaded objects that often show up in his other artwork. We see fast-food items, elevated here to garish objet d'art status. We see a "pistola" with a flashing red light implying gunplay.
Social tension or impending violence is welcomed into Romero's world with a deceptive casualness--a valid approach in a societal reality where real world violence is an ever-present possibility.
"Freeway Wars" depicts a gun battle on the freeway with the skewed perspective of a dreamy cartoon. A brace of policemen keeping out pesky would-be cruisers in "The Closing of Whittier Blvd." look like the Gestapo, a seriocomic approach. Elsewhere, freeway traffic is viewed as a big, happy, kinetic mess.
A prominent figure in Chicano art, Romero began his studies early, studying with Millard Sheets at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles at the age of 15. With his friend and cohort, artist Carlos Almaraz, Romero headed to New York for a brief stay in the late '60s, and returned to Los Angeles by 1970.
It was in 1974 that Romero, along with artists Almaraz, Gilbert Lujan and Beto de la Rocha, forged the Chicano collaborative known as "Los Four." The group emphasized the importance of dealing with subjects relevant to Chicano life and also railed against the racial barriers in the art scene.
While initially dispersing their creativity outside the gallery system, through street art and mural painting, "Los Four" succeeded in penetrating the walls of the official art world.
In 1974, exhibitions of art by "Los Four" appeared at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and in Texas. This was long before the onslaught of graffiti street art in "legitimate" art venues.
Murals have remained part of Romero's artistic workload, from a project for the 1984 Olympics, to a work-in-progress in a station of the new Los Angeles Metro Rail line now under construction.
Sure enough, Romero's muralist ethic is in place even in his gallery works. He has a sometimes brash but balanced artistic vision, paying attention to big ideas and cultural archetypes, but also minding details writ large and rendered metaphorical.
Overall, the sprawling Carnegie exhibition--which runs through Dec. 6--is a significant one on many levels. It taps directly into the strata of Latino culture that makes up a large part of Southern California but is rarely granted much general visibility. Also, the show is a broadly appealing one, approachable to virtually anyone, regardless of their art leanings.
* WHERE AND WHEN
"Frank Romero!: A Survey of Recent Works," through Dec. 6 at the Carnegie Art Museum, 424 South C St., Oxnard. For more information call 385-8157.