ART REVIEW : Trio of California Artists Mix It Up in 'The Mythic Present'

TIMES ART CRITIC

Three mid-career California artists of Mexican descent are showcased in an exhibition at USC's Fisher Gallery. Titled "The Mythic Present of Chagoya, Valdez and Gronk," the work reminds us that in modern art, multiculturalism means intermixture, not separatism.

The most dramatic of the three presentations is Gronk's mural "Idle Hands." Impressive because it's a big virtuoso turn, it's also a lot of instructive fun because the artist is painting it in public during gallery hours. Those who want to see him in action should hurry on down. He expects to finish around Dec. 15.

Gronk grew out of a guerrilla street-theater group associated with Garfield High School and Cal State L.A. in the '70s. They called themselves Asco-Spanish, asco meaning "loathing." Although they sported carnival finery, they were so broke, they made vagabond soup out of hot water and ketchup at the local International House of Pancakes. Fellow rebels included Patssi Valdez, whose work is also on view.

It was real grass-roots, underbelly stuff, but as an artist, Gronk is a kind of natural aristocrat. In L.A., he's formed a reputation painting macabre society folk in a style somewhere between the Mexican Day of the Dead and Max Beckmann's urbane expressionism. Recently he's shifted to landscape.

The mural in progress is a fascinating tangle of roots, pods, intestines and thorns. Clearly about some inner torment, it's rendered with a master's suavity and cosmopolitanism. Formally it's a blend of about equal parts classic Mexican muralist, like Jose Clemente Orozco, the American Jackson Pollock and the Armenian Arshile Gorky.

Valdez's art sticks closer to the barrio but it too has developed a sophisticated sense of surface and space. She paints little neighborhood interiors with the eyes of an 8-year-old who can find equal magic in the Catholic paraphernalia strewn about the house, the pattern of the carpet, simple toys and the awesomely comforting presence of one's mother. Her colors are those of a slight fever.

In "Domestic Goddess," she sees a saintly woman about 20 stories tall embracing a homely little bungalow. By contrast, "Cactus Queen" shows an enticingly forbidden female specter dressed in glamorous finery that twines up from an earth that is all bright green and red. Valdez seems preoccupied with entanglements. Do they embrace, engulf or strangle? There's nothing odd about the little interior called "Twilight," except that it's being invaded by vines from the yard.

Sometimes Valdez's images are the dreams of sleep, at others the hallucinations of waking. In "The Magic Room," suddenly everything starts to spin. The carpet swirls, chairs float upward, balls bounce around on their own. In another picture, homemade hobby horses gallop alone. There are enough party decorations lying around to suggest the kid just took her first foray into the grown-ups' punch bowl. This is touching art, innocent and haunted.

San Francisco's Enrique Chagoya, a pyrotechnical draftsman, is less familiar here-abouts. Trained in Mexico City and the Bay Area, he was a political cartoonist as a student. The urge to lampoon still shows in an eclectic art that trips lightly from pre-Columbian to Goya, French Impressionism, Mickey Mouse, Superman and Conceptualism.

It's the kind of thing that could easily descend into pompous wise-guy scholasticism, but this artist makes it all funny, topical and universally mordant. "The Governor's Dream" does a good impersonation of a Mayan scroll. In it the natives gleefully cannibalize a cadaver bearing a suspicious resemblance to California Gov. Pete Wilson. Nearby the reigning deity prepares Mickey for the next course.

The famous mouse shows up frequently. In "Not Good for Funding," he becomes a graffiti caricature looking horrified at an icon of Jesus. Chagoya manages to get past the clearly specific targets of his satire to the enduring nature of human prejudice. If he uses an in-crowd reference, as in "Color Theory After Baldessari," he puts it in the service of better things. He seems to ask us to weigh the importance of arts formalities against the fact that peoples are enslaved because they are regarded as racially inferior.

He asks all the centuries-old questions about injustice and inequity. He manages to frame them afresh so we can once again laugh and shudder at the monstrous species of which we are part.

The exhibition was organized by USC curator Max F. Shulz who demonstrates a canny eye for juxtaposition.

* USC Fisher Gallery, 823 Exposition Blvd., to Feb. 17, closed Sunday and Monday, (213) 740-4561.

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