Particle board is not at all a refined material. Inexpensively made from sawdust or wood chips compressed with a resin binder, it's a somewhat flexible material useful in a variety of utilitarian projects.
When Ruben Ortiz Torres paints, almost always he paints on particle board. Among the myriad pieces in the compact survey exhibition of the artist's work that opened Sunday at the Huntington Beach Art Center, you won't find much canvas, linen or wood--the more traditional surfaces on which artists typically paint.
Instead, particle board rules. It's the support for a portrait of the cartoon character Bart Simpson, who is rendered in the google-eyed, colorfully distorted manner of a 1930s-era Cubist Picasso; for a picture of Speedy Gonzalez, whose face has been replaced by the grim, realistic visage of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, which hovers like an apparition in the center of the canary yellow sombrero; and for three other paintings and four mixed-media works that incorporate paintings.
The point is not, I don't think, that icons of popular culture are inevitably debased, intrinsically cheesy and don't deserve "better" than a low-grade, workaday material like particle board. It's that Ortiz's art is hybrid to the bone--not just in the deliriously cross-pollinated subject matter on which he chooses to focus, but right down to the mongrelized support on which his paintings are made. Modernist ideas of purity are of no interest here.
Ortiz is among the most interesting young artists (he's 34) to have emerged in Los Angeles in the 1990s. Born in Mexico City and educated there and at CalArts, in suburban L.A., he divides his time between the two cities.
Perhaps one way to think of his relentlessly hybridized work is as a kind of mestizo art--an art of blended parentage, in which promiscuous amalgamations are the norm. In the survey organized by curator Tyler Stallings, you see it everywhere in the subject matter Ortiz chooses--not just for his paintings, but also for his photographs, videotapes, decorated baseball caps, collages and installations. With their emphasis on the landscape of popular culture, call it pop mestizaje.
A marionette of E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, has been altered with some paint and a few wardrobe changes to merge the Spielberg hero into a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. A luridly colored photograph of four Beatles look-alikes from a Mexico City nightclub (on Calle Liverpool) is titled "I Am the 'Morsa' [Walrus] / Magical Mexican Tour." A black cap that's an authorized sports souvenir of the L.A. Kings is sent spinning through the simple, embroidered addition of the name "Rodney," while a blue velvet yarmulke embroidered with the logo of the Dodgers is dubbed "the Sandy Koufax version" of the team's trademark baseball cap.
Ortiz's pop mestizaje can be startlingly provocative. Take the garish, Sgt. Pepper-style satin uniforms worn by the Mexican pseudo-Beatles; they're juiced up even more by the gaudy, saturated colors of the extravagantly lit photograph, which is typical of the kind of behind-the-scenes publicity shot you'd see in any fan magazine. Unexpected collisions soon begin to occur, as the psychedelic '60s ricochet around Latin American magic realism and the up-to-the-minute manipulations of contemporary mass media. The photograph, unassuming on its face, finally leaves you wide-eyed.
Indeed, Ortiz's art is based on finding curiously compelling examples of radical hybrids already existing in the world--usually the world of popular culture--then giving them one more twist. The Ninja Turtle-cum-E.T. marionette, for example, hangs on the wall next to its own painted portrait, its doubly alien identity neatly legitimized in oils.
In part Ortiz's art is effective because he recognizes the great leveling power of popular culture. Pop's embrace of the lowest common denominator is most often regarded with suspicion, either as the merely junky antithesis of an authentic art of quality, or as a cruel and deceptive opiate for the masses. However, in a tradition that includes the work of such important predecessors as Alexis Smith and Lari Pittman, Ortiz seems far more interested in the mechanism of pop's power--in its intrinsic capacity for demolishing established hierarchies, and opening up some cultural elbow room in the process.
His often trenchant art is socially and politically conscious, but it doesn't preach a simple reversal of the mainstream and the margins, which discredits so much art with self-righteous critical pretensions today. Instead, like a miner panning for gold, Ortiz sifts through popular culture in search of glistening nuggets of hybridity. Once found, he embraces the leveling power of popular culture as a tool for promoting a hybrid state of consciousness.
Appropriately, Ortiz emphasizes something similar in the process of making his art. Collaboration is a frequent practice.
His terrific eight-minute video, "How to Read Macho Mouse" (1990), which first drew critical attention to his work when it had its debut seven years ago, was made in collaboration with Aaron Anish. The selection of 20 different baseball caps required the skills of talented embroiderers to execute his designs.
Ortiz's hourlong 1995 documentary, "Frontierland / Fronterlandia," was co-produced with Jesse Lerner. "Alien Toy," a 1997 installation in which an extraordinary customized car serves as the pedestal for a raucously exciting music video of the magnificent car performing, wouldn't exist without the amazing vehicle designed and built by customizer Chava Mun~oz.
The strongest, most consistent work in this enjoyable survey tends to be Ortiz's photographs, films and videos. For the mixed parentage of pop mestizaje, the collaborative nature of film and television may in part explain why.
* "Ruben Ortiz Torres, Desmothernismo," Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., (714) 374-1650, through Nov. 8. Closed Mondays.