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Soul at Heart of Mexican Painter’s Show

TIMES ART CRITIC

Veteran Mexican painter and muralist Rodolfo Morales’ is not widely known in this country. Born in 1924, he studied in Mexico City and spent numerous years in the cosmopolitan centers of Europe. But his art remained preoccupied with life in his natal village, Ocotlan, in the state of Oaxaca where he eventually returned to stay.

A 60-work retrospective now visiting Long Beach’s Museum of Latin American Art was organized by the gallery Arte de Oaxaca under the title “Rodolfo Morales: Jeugos Y Evocaciones (Diversions and Remembrances).” It will act for most Californians as an introduction spanning the artist’s career since 1950. It’s considerably more interesting than might be gleaned from a rough description.

Formally, Morales’ art conforms closely to a formula that usually spells mediocrity. It combines aspects of traditional Mexican folk art with traces of conservative academic training altered by evidence of an increasing awareness of modernism. Glibly defined, Morales might be seen as a kind of Mexican Marc Chagall. Rufino Tamayo was a fan of Morales, and from the look of this work the admiration ran both ways. As time passes it’s easy to detect Morales’ awareness of Picasso. By the ‘60s he was making tissue-paper collages embedded in beautiful brass folk frames. At least one of these suggests that Morales was thinking about--of all people--Andy Warhol.

The saving grace of this work, however, appears to be that none of Morales’ influences ever really sunk in. A couple of early land-and-village views that reflect his academic training struggle doggedly to conform but something in the brushwork bristles and that’s what’s arresting. In a slightly later work, Morales let himself go; his “I Want to Go Home” depicts an indio sleeping among broken bottles. The feeling of absurd despair it broadcasts is so pungent it seems unsettlingly timely--an image of today’s derelict homeless.

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Morales’ value as an artist lies in his inability to finally do anything but paint con alma, with soul. When he resembles a mainstream artist it tends to be with the edge of a poetic visionary like James Ensor or the simplicity of Rousseau. Morales is most accurately seen, I think, not as a master linked to international Modernism, but as one who raised traditional Mexican ex-voto painting to a new stature. Every village in Mexico has craftsmen--sign painters and such--who turn their hand to making small images that celebrate, mourn or beseech. Like them, Morales essentially expresses life’s cosmology through everyday events.

His center of focus is the idea and image of woman, writ large. “Daily Life Is Real"--a recent big diptych--has an entirely female cast. They wait patiently, sitting on benches with bouquets or dance awkwardly together to pass the time. They get pregnant, die and turn to angels. They are sweethearts, mothers and the undeserving repositories of men’s guilt.

In one composition a woman’s upper body rests in a stucco window casement. Everything about the picture seems heavy, even the sky. Its title is “I Swear It Wasn’t Me.” Another is called “Marieta, Don’t Be Flirtatious,” even though the girl depicted just sits quietly in a pink party dress, azure hose and orange pumps. Morales conveys sly wisdom about the way men make women feel guilty by blaming them for feelings that actually reside in the guys.

But these things are no one’s fault, the artist seems to shrug. He makes his point through a series of silver-framed collage images of wedding couples, mariachis and dancing demons where everyone is shown in traditional Day of the Dead form as skeletons. No one has flesh except the siren mermaids who tempt everyone into the dark sea of life.

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* Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach; through Aug. 24, closed Mondays, (562) 437-1689.


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