For One and All : Four artists use historical imagery in works that convey meanings that are both personal and universal.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times. </i>

Fables, folklore, the Bible and history have always inspired artists. While some envision those narratives as they have always been told, others prefer to embellish them with a personal touch or to use them as a starting point to tell new tales.

The Pierce College Art Gallery has brought together artwork by four Los Angeles artists that conveys personal yet universal stories in the exhibit, “Iconography as Metaphor: Four Los Angeles Artists Who Use Historical Stories in Their Work.” The exhibit features paintings by George Combs, mixed-media work by Beth Sternlieb, drawings and prints by Rosa M. and the photography of Christina Fernandez.

“It’s an interesting show because the artists come from different backgrounds,” said gallery director and show curator Joan Kahn. “The stories they are choosing to use and the symbols in the work, those are metaphors for other things the artists are thinking about. The stories have specific relevance to the artists’ concerns and political beliefs.”

Combs’ bold, colorful surrealistic images range from the grim “Organized Social Suicide” to the vibrant “Twelve Jewels of Life.” While “Suicide” presents “the things in life that make life terrible,” Combs said, “Jewels” focuses on “the essence of life.” Based on his study of Islam, “Jewels” uses spirited representational images to depict the joys and necessities of existence--knowledge, wisdom, understanding, freedom, justice, equality, food, clothing, shelter, love, peace and happiness.


A third Combs painting, “Fantasy, Morality, Reality,” runs the gamut of a black youth’s views of life. Combs consulted with his 14-year-old daughter, Cameo, while painting the piece. He said the young boy it portrays watching television is himself as a boy.

On the TV, the youth sees a “fantasy” of fast cars and basketball players, Mickey Mouse and Captain America. Peering out in another direction, he finds the “morality” of the church. Beyond that is the “reality” of slavery, lynchings, Martin Luther King Jr. in jail, and a police officer beating a boy, among other images.

Combs started painting in earnest 20 years ago, when he spent two years in Soledad prison. “I haven’t looked back,” he said. He added, speaking of his paintings, “This is my love here. I like doing surreal work, doing stories and things on my mind. You want to express things. I have something to offer.”

Sternlieb’s work is more abstract, but it also draws on historic imagery. She looks back to the stories of people moving west--of immigrants from Europe coming to live and work in New York, of pioneers moving across America, of her own move from New York to California--in two sizable mixed-media works that incorporate large photocopies of early 20th-Century photographs.


In “Artificial Flowers,” two photographic images of people working at a table epitomize the multitude of immigrants of that time who made things with their hands. These pictures are cohesively integrated within patterns of abstract images.

A different sort of mythology figures in the work of Rosa M., who delves into Greek myths and Native American narratives to call attention to a woman’s place in the world and in relationships. The expressionistic drawings and prints that have come out of this study are presented in carved wood frames made by the artist.

Her print “Return to Aztlan” suggests a journey back to her Latina roots. Her drawing “Venus and Wolf” sets any classical Venus narrative on its head. It portrays a masked, semi-naked woman standing by a wolf. An actual mask has been attached to the top of the drawing’s frame. Among the frame’s carved images are the moon and sun, a heart with a crack through it, frogs and snakes.

The subject of a woman’s place is treated somewhat differently by Fernandez in the photographs from her “Shooting Series.” In one image, which revisits the William Tell legend, we see a woman from the back, hands behind her head, bright red polish on her nails. Atop her head is an apple. Behind her is the outline of a figure used in target practice. In revolutionary contrast, the other photograph is of a young woman in braids and blouse boldly facing the camera, rifle in hand and a belt of ammunition slung over her chest.


“People make art about things that scare and fascinate them,” Kahn said. “Things that we put in our drawings are not always things that we do. It would be a whole lot better if people were painting on the walls instead of shooting each other.”



What: “Iconography as Metaphor.”


Location: Pierce College Art Gallery, 6201 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Thursday. Ends Feb. 22.

Opening reception: 7 to 9 p.m. Monday.

Call: (818) 719-6498.