We seem to be in a period of passion for biography. The life stories of prominent people, from media stars to war heroes, make the literary bestseller lists so regularly that there has to be something behind the fascination.
Maybe this overcrowded world somehow threatens the idea of individual identity, so that it's reassuring to read a personal story. That could explain the impulse behind the exhibition "Converging Cultures" at the Skirball Cultural Center.
Organized by Skirball assistant curator Monica Billet, the show focuses on the art of three women, June Wayne, Yreina D. Cervantez and Betty Lee. All present work that is frankly autobiographical and thus intensely personal. That's more or less what you'd expect from artist-inheritors of the modernist tradition, with its emphasis on the idiosyncrasies of the subconscious as manifested in such styles as Abstract Expressionism or Surrealism.
Here, however, art is not used as a scalpel that cuts through convention to arrive at a unique and free-standing view of life. It is used as a mirror to ruminate on the artists' condition as women and as the products of distinct racial groups. Each artist is an American born of immigrant parents--Russian Jewish, Chicana and Chinese, respectively. Thus this is art that thinks about what it means to be the member of a collective. This work, and art like it, represents a dramatic aesthetic sea-change over the last several years.
At its most fundamental, such work returns to an activity once scorned in the art world--the recounting of narrative. Telling stories with pictures was so long held in contempt that it's little wonder nobody here is very good at it. It's hard enough to be an artist without saddling yourself with the problems of the writer. Autobiography is an especially rough sea fraught with the reefs of narcissism, self-pity and egomania.
Wayne is the only participant likely to be well known to viewers. A highly respected veteran L.A. artist and pioneer feminist, she founded the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in 1960 reviving that then-dying print media. Her work "The Dorothy Series" is a homage to her single mother, who worked as a successful traveling salesperson selling lingerie out of Depression-era Chicago. There are striking prints like "The Chicago Territory" and "Power Net." Images allude to a second marriage to a card-carrying Communist and to her mother's membership in the liberal Women's League for Peace and Freedom.
Executed over four years starting in 1979, Wayne's series anticipated the current trend. It manages to evoke a fine, tough novel that remains frustratingly out of reach.
Cervantez was born in Kansas, moved to California in 1960 and grew up in a milieu of immigrants and migrant workers. Her watercolors are a bold, sensitive combination of pulque art, Diego Rivera and Ivan Albright. "Puppet, Puppet" is a wonderfully satirical image of a Latino male in traditional costume manipulating a similarly clad female figure that appears to be a self-portrait.
Cervantez manages the clearest narrative on view with "Black Legs, an Education." Made of combined drawings and simple text, it recounts the artist's first day of dismay and alienation in a new school, when she's beaten up by the "Blondies."
Lee grew up in a small Midwestern town where her parents operated a laundry. Her single piece, "Time + Infinity," uses a chronological row of photographs depicting her great-grandmothers, dating back to 1881, and moving forward to show herself and her own daughter. Oblique hints of narrative appear in images of bound feet, vintage fighter planes and cartons of Chinese takeout.
The piece is, however, so elegantly discreet as to be mute. Its strongest impression is the artist's awareness of the profound continuity of Chinese civilization.
Taken together, this art mirrors a paradoxical new world where art is unsure of its aims and people seek their individuality within groups of others like themselves.
* Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd.; through Aug. 25, closed Mondays, (310) 440-4500.