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Pigment of Imagination

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

He walked in the shadows of Mexico’s great painters, nurturing a dream to cement his name among their ranks.

As the young protege of master painter Rufino Tamayo, Vladimir Cora is emerging as one of the premier Mexican artists working in the United States.

Galleries throughout the nation carry his work, and an upscale Los Angeles restaurant is being named after Cora, who lives in Santa Ana for a couple of months of the year. His paintings sell for as much as $50,000, nearly triple what they did 10 years ago.

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The breadth of Cora’s work is housed in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of the Bernard and Edith Lewin Latin American Art Galleries, which opened Dec. 14.

Among the 1,800 works, worth $25 million and given to the museum by the Lewins in 1997, are paintings by modern Mexican masters Tamayo, Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The permanent collection, considered one of the nation’s largest collections of 20th-century Mexican art, includes 500 paintings by Cora.

“The idea . . . is to do as many rotations as possible to show the breadth of this collection and the richness of Latin American art,” said Ilona Katzew, associate curator of Latin American art at LACMA.

“I’ll be looking at Cora’s work for subsequent rotations of the show,” Katzew said, adding that the gallery’s inaugural exhibition will not include Cora’s paintings.

Self-taught, the native of Nayarit, Mexico, built his reputation at home as a formidable painter in his late teens. Cora knew he wanted to be a painter after seeing a print of Monet’s “Water Lillies” in his aunt’s pharmacy, where he worked when he was 13.

Cora, 49, was named after Vladimir Lenin by his father, a saddle maker and avid follower of politics. Cora met Tamayo in 1978 and remained his student from then until the mentor died in 1991. Tamayo openly praised Cora as a “pillar” of a new generation of Mexican artists. He stated in 1986 that Cora was “one of the young painters who will receive all my support to continue the work I started a long time ago.”

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Tamayo was dubbed el padrino, or “the godfather,” to Cora.

“Tamayo didn’t take a lot of pupils,” Katzew said of the renegade artist. He didn’t establish a formal art school like his contemporaries and, in fact, often worked counter to the Mexican muralists, many of whose works were politically driven.

Tamayo was more interested in universal themes such as liberty and man confronted by the cosmos, Katzew said. He experimented with various techniques and materials, such as using sand and marble powder to bring luster to his paintings. Cora works in a similar experimental fashion. His paintings are visibly marred with scratches and scribbles. He is known to plunge his hands into globs of paint and squiggle it on the canvas. He blends acrylics and oils in his paintings to create a contrast of colors and depth.

The restless energy and fierce enthusiasm evoked in his work are distinct characteristics that drew Orange County gallery owner Bill Anderson. His first exhibit of Cora’s work five years ago brought large crowds and sold well, Anderson said. His Anderson Art Gallery in Sunset Beach carries Mexican and California art and will exhibit Cora in May.

“Cora’s work has more energy and is much bolder than Tamayo, who painted with more subtleties and had gentle, delicate touches,” Anderson said. “I’ve seen Cora work, and you can hear the drawing or painting take place with each stroke.”

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Cora, who can be inspired by a conversation, friends, music, nature and especially women, has evolved a style incorporating geometric elements of Cubism. His early paintings emulate artists who influenced him, namely Tamayo and Picasso, and is exemplified by works such as “Watermelon Mouth,” “Musicians,” the “Bathers” series and “La Senoritas de Tecuala.”

Cora lived for part of 1981 in Palm Springs, where he met art collectors Bernard Lewin and his wife, Edith, through Tamayo. In search of an “artistic escape,” Cora later settled part time in Santa Ana, where he opened a studio in 1996.

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“A friend told me about Santa Ana and the community of artists,” Cora said in Spanish. “I needed to be in a place where no one knew who I was, so I could work in privacy without distractions.”

His neo-figurative forms and vibrant palette of hazy blues, pinks and turquoise are reminiscent of the tropical beaches and lush settings of Nayarit, on the west coast of Mexico near Puerto Vallarta.

“His style is abstract with some vestiges of representation of objects and human figures,” said Margarita Nieto, a Los Angeles art critic and historian who was the assessor of the Lewin collection.

Common to the Mexican style of “plastic arts,” which distorts the representation of a subject, the imagery in Cora’s paintings hints of windows, lips, hair, legs and the curves of the female figure. Like Tamayo, Cora often painted fruits to represent women--the great creators, Nieto said.

“There’s an erotic sensuality to his work,” Nieto said. “His lines or stripes evoke the sense of Venetian blinds--which gives the idea of privacy, intimacy, unveiling and veiling, or an opening or closing of a window.”

In Mexico, Cora is a highly regarded, established artist, art experts say.

“Cora may be an emerging artist in California, but he’s had a prolific career in Mexico,” Nieto said. “Tamayo was very encouraging and made sure Cora’s name got out.”

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In fact, Cora has had one-man exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and Palacio de Belles Artes (the Palace of Fine Arts) in Mexico City in 1994 and 1995, respectively.

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Extremely prolific, Cora can finish 20 to 30 paintings a year, a strength that could work against him, art collectors say.

“He’s too prolific now when he should concentrate on the detail and quality of his work,” said Bernard Lewin, who has retired from collecting.

“I don’t think Vladimir is yet on the level of the great Mexican artists. He has the talent and potential to be great, but he’s still young and hasn’t been around long enough in the art business. The world doesn’t know too much about him yet.”

Cora’s paintings and lithographs often sold well at Lewin’s Palm Springs gallery. He also is represented at the Adagio Galleries in Palm Springs; the Coda Gallery in Palm Desert and Soho, New York; and the Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco. The Marion Meyer Contemporary Art Gallery in Laguna Beach will feature the artist in January.

Mexican artists popularly identified with the didactic narrative muralist movement from the 1920s and ‘30s came to California and had a major influence on California art, particularly in the Southland. Younger generations of Mexican artists have followed the path.

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“Younger artists follow us not to copy but to get inspiration from the pioneers,” said Raul Anguiano, one of the last members of the muralist movement, who taught Cora figure drawing classes 10 years ago in Mexico City.

“It’s very important for contemporary Mexican artists to work in the United States if they want to build a name for themselves like the Mexican muralists did. And that is what Cora is trying to do.”

Art collectors and museums, such as LACMA, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach and the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, are building their collections to accommodate the growing body of Latin American art.

“Los Angeles is the perfect place to have a gallery and study center because of its diverse Latin American population,” Katzew said, noting a recent Diego Rivera show and upcoming Latin American art exhibitions in 2001, including art from Aztlan, Cuban photography and a Jose Clemente Orozco display.

Contemporary artists like Cora still have a tough road ahead to cement their names in the annals of Mexico’s most influential painters.

“Here’s this Mexican artist, Cora, who has been on the scene for a long time even though we talk about him as an emerging artist in California and the United States,” said Anderson, the Sunset Beach gallery owner. “It’s a tough field, and you have to keep reinventing yourself, doing something fresh and new. Cora’s work shows the influence of changing worlds.”

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