The American dream may be most strongly associated with the United States, but similar dreams also exist in other countries, whenever material prosperity, patriotism and indigenous myths combine to form an optimistic and forward-looking attitude equated with national identity.
At the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, a fascinating exhibition of Mexican calendars and related photographs, paintings and movie posters mostly from the 1940s, '50s and '60s outlines a particularly rich confluence of commercial advertising, historical myths and contemporary identity in images that are often tacky, occasionally poignant and sometimes both.
Organized by the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City and the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Chicago, "La Patria Portatil" (The Portable Motherland) is a big, user-friendly show that begins by comparing colorful giveaway calendars and "The Sun's Stone," a 24-ton Aztec calendar carved in 1469.
The comparison is not farfetched. A 1946 chromolithographic print by Jose Bribiesca depicts a new tire (manufactured by Royal Tecnica Mexicana) set in the center of the stone, which is draped in a Mexican flag, flanked by a pair of muscular Aztecs and crowned by a column supporting a Winged Victory statue.
Similarly propagandistic prints and paintings by Bribiesca, Jesus Helguera, Vicente Morales, Eduardo Catan~o and Alfredo Gonzalez freely mix legends, folklore, religion, sex and consumer products. Scantily clad women often adorn Aztec pyramids and monoliths, or appear in the arms of Prince Popocatepetl. Dressed in flowing robes, they also harvest abundant crops or loll about in idyllic settings, casting come-hither looks to viewers. In contrast to U.S. historical myths, the ones represented here do not prudishly purge sex from celebrations of the Motherland.
With a type of straightforward sincerity that looks old-fashioned today, La Moderna cigarette company published a series of calendars linking their product to Mother's Day, the sacrament of baptism and rural tranquillity. Likewise, Jaime Sadurni's ads for Jose Cuervo tequila from the late 1950s to the early 1970s record bottled agave's transformation from a rural brew to an urbane libation.
As a whole, "La Patria Portatil" combines elements of pulp-fiction paperbacks, religious icons, illustrated pinups and government propaganda to form a unique mixture that is distinctively Mexican yet never confined to that nation's borders.
* The Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, 112 S. Main St., (213) 626-7600, through Aug. 31. Open daily 10 a.m-4 p.m.; free admission.
Happy Faces: Trippy vibes from the summer of love echo faintly in Michael Lazarus' new paintings, as does the intimation of something more sinister. At Marc Foxx Gallery, the Brooklyn-based painter's variously scaled enamels on panel play polar opposites in a Jungian drama smoldering with silent intensity.
At least one smiling mask appears in each of the 14 works in Lazarus' L.A. solo debut. Recalling jack-o'-lanterns, blackface, Mexican wrestling costumes and Freddie Kruger's hockey mask, these menacingly happy faces are often paired with their upside-down reflections, suggesting that every strong emotion is haunted by its shadow.
Lazarus' stark pictures hide as much as they reveal. Like mutant fusions of the ancient Greek symbols for comedy and tragedy, they convey antithetical outlooks with sign-like clarity. Painted in bright colors, with collaged elements and asymmetrical patterns, they can be read very quickly.
However, Lazarus' emblematic paintings never let viewers off the hook with pat messages or hollow platitudes. Ambiguity reigns in these works, where things are just what they are and a whole lot more.
Born in 1969, Lazarus is too young to have experienced the chaos and promise of the 1960s first hand. But being at one remove does not diminish the impact of his art or imply that it's an empty sign of bygone times.
On the contrary, his promising paintings are part of his generation's move away from Freud and toward Jung. In contrast to works celebrated for expressing personal sentiments, Lazarus' idiosyncratic panels never form private narratives that presume to take viewers back to the artist's inner feelings and hidden traumas. Instead, his graphic, gregarious works take their place in the shared public space of the visible world, where they boldly address the desires and responsibilities of viewers.
* Marc Foxx Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-5571, through July 24. Closed Sundays and Mondays.)
Meditations: The smaller Ted Kurahara's abstract paintings get, the stronger they become. To walk through the three exhibition spaces of Kiyo Higashi Gallery is to see the Seattle-born, New York-based painter's increasingly compact panels build in density and impact.
Kurahara's third solo show in Los Angeles opens with the oldest, largest and least expansive piece, a 6-by-9-foot red canvas divided into a grid of squares. Swirled brush strokes are visible in every waxy section, whose borders are formed by a flatter version of a similar tint that has been evenly applied.
Two acrylics on canvas in the back gallery make the artist's big painting look like a study--a preliminary working-through of issues and techniques that are more fully developed elsewhere. Each measures 2 feet on a side, has a fine grid inscribed over its nearly monochrome surface and, most importantly, seems to be lit from within.
In the main gallery, Kurahara's newest paintings begin where his mid-size ones leave off. As if made of palpable light, these 1-foot-square gouaches are suffused with so much saturated color that the razor-thin lines of their grids often disappear. With the best, such as a black triptych whose red edges give a pink glow to the surrounding wall, it's difficult to pinpoint just where the painting ends and the space around it begins.
Painted in watery layers on translucent sheets of handmade paper that have been glued over wood panels, Kurahara's humble works don't need to be large because every square foot of surface seems to contain a vast depth of liquid color. Packing a lot into a small package, these meditative abstractions make the room in which they hang feel as if it's bigger than it actually is.
* Kiyo Higashi Gallery, 8332 Melrose Ave., (323) 655-2482, through July 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays.