These Artists Don't Even Try to Paint Within the Borders

Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

The border between the U.S. and Mexico is a line on a map, a state of mind and a cultural landscape. All those elements and more are part of an exhibition of nine young artists from Tijuana opening Friday at the Luckman Gallery at Cal State Los Angeles.

"PinturaFresca" (Wet Paint) is billed as a paintings show, but these artists are working and reworking stretched canvas with dense layers of paint, adding bits from fabric to buttons to manufacturing detritus. There is hardly a straightforward portrait or landscape among them. Instead, if there is portrait, it might be a generic or a psychological one--as in the works of Tania Candiani or Pablo Llana; if there is landscape, it is conceptual more than physical--as in the works of Jaime Ruiz Otis and Daniel Ruanova. The other artists in this show, organized by artist and teacher Luis Ituarte, a third-generation Tijuana native now living part time in Los Angeles, are Mely Barragan, Enrique Ciapara, Hugo Crosthwaite, Alejandro Martinez-Pena and Robert Romero.

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"It grew very fast and in a very chaotic way," says Ituarte of Tijuana. He points out that when he was born, in 1943, the town had a population of 17,000; now it's 1.2 million. People from all over Mexico "came awaiting an opportunity to come across the border or to have a life more like the one we have here in the United States."

Four years ago, Ituarte became intrigued by a story in The Times, "Emergence of a Hybrid Culture," by Anne-Marie O'Connor. That piece described the phenomenon of a specific borderland culture arising from an increasingly educated, affluent society in Tijuana.

After years of absence, Ituarte began visiting his hometown again, and at the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, where he worked, he proposed a Tijuana-Los Angeles cultural exchange program, Poets for Painters. In the 2000-01 fiscal year, the department, in conjunction with Tijuana's Instituto Municipal de Arte y Cultura, sent L.A. artists to exhibit in Tijuana and brought poets to L.A. This year, the exchange will go the other direction.

Ituarte selected the nine Mexican artists last year, inviting them to a weeklong retreat at Dorland Arts Colony in Temecula to ask them "to start realizing what parts of what they do are relevant to the culture of Tijuana because we wanted to do a show in the context of them as Tijuana artists."

The artists are young, ranging from 20 to early 30s, and largely self-taught, because there had been no art academy in the city. (The first one opened just last month, as part of the new University of the Arts of the Northwest.) As Crosthwaite, 30, says, speaking by telephone from Tijuana, "I was always interested in figurative drawing, and I just began drawing--copying comic books, art books, Renaissance artists." Others have learned the same way--by seeing art in publications and in museums, by copying, by experimenting.

Crosthwaite and Ruanova said the modern art scene in Tijuana is not big but thriving. "Usually every Friday there's an art opening somewhere, and we see each other there," Crosthwaite said. So it's a tight community? "Yes," Ruanova says, laughing, "it's too tight." In fact, he will be marrying another artist in the show, Barragan, next spring.

"We thought it was such a great idea," says Julie Joyce, director of the Luckman Gallery, which is another partner in the exchange program, "not just because of the show itself, but also [because] it fit in with some of the other things we were planning at the time."

"PinturaFresca" will culminate a month of talks, film and video screenings, and performances on Latino arts at Cal State L.A.; its opening coincides with a Latin American Composers Festival at the Luckman Theatre, Saturday and next Sunday.

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While these works aren't traditional, one might find a strong trace of traditional concerns in Crosthwaite's large-scale drawings--both in terms of theme and style. Because of its size, just the first and the center sections of his nine-part "Tablets of a Novena" are included in the exhibition. In the series, human nudes swirl through a dark ether, undergoing judgment as posited by Catholic doctrine.

"The Banishment," included here, shows a man and a woman being propelled through the murky darkness from the upper left corner, where an impish figure seems to be working a pulley. Far below them is Earth, represented by the grim facade of a tenement building. "It relates to banishment from paradise, the first fall," Crosthwaite explains. "The other panels go through judgment, through purgatory, then in the end there is another banishment."

Which is to say, the cycle starts all over again. "My inspiration for this was a version of 'The Divine Comedy' done by Gustave Dore," he says. Since he cannot afford models for his time-consuming drawings on board, he draws from posed photos of friends and clippings from fashion magazines.

Candiani, 27, has contributed two works on canvas to the show. They are startlingly oversized--more than 10 feet tall--and show in puffy detail front and rear views of a nude woman with tightly curled hair. In "Lipo Front" and "Lipo Back," the figure is obese, with rolls of fat across her stomach and bunched around her knees. Each work employs two pieces of canvas, with the figure quilted onto them in black thread with the easy confidence of a quick sketch. The contours have been filled out with cotton batting, producing a kind of soft sculpture bas-relief.

"I was looking at advertising and television, and how they influence women," Candiani says. "The message is if you are not thin, you are not beautiful. It's terrible."

She decided to depict fatness in all its glory but asked herself, "What can I do to make the image more, like, floating? So that you can see the beauty in the body?"

Candiani's works are not self-portraits ("I do a lot of exercise," she says, "I'm not immune to all that advertising"), but Llano's portraits, says Ituarte, do reflect the painter, who has recently come out as gay. "He's painting the tremendous drama that he's living," says Ituarte.

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Among the other "PinturaFresca" artists are abstractionists--painters Ciapara and Romero--as well as pictorial linoprints of city streets and cafes by Martinez-Pena, while Barragan and Ruiz have used found and recycled objects. Barragan has worked vintage sequins, lace and buttons she inherited from relatives into her paintings. "She belongs to a very strong, united family," Ituarte says, "so she derives a lot of elements from who she is."

Ruiz draws his ideas from the realm of the maquiladoras , the manufacturing plants set up at the border by multinational and U.S. corporations taking advantage of low labor costs and less-than-stringent manufacturing rules in Mexico. Ruiz depicts abstracted landscapes of the environmental and perhaps psychological pollution brought on by the companies: ghostly figures in front of nondescript factories in "6 a.m. On the Way to the Nave" or a road streaming with bilious colors in "Following the Yellow Day."

In "Container of Ideas," a painting of a cube within a cube, he has worked the gold-foil-stamped book cover from "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" onto the top of one of the cubes. "Ruiz is resourceful," Ituarte says, "He is at the garbage cans of the maquiladoras every morning."

Another "landscape" of Tijuana is presented by "Landscape Without Green Areas" by Ruanova, 25. It is a large painting, 77 by 66 inches, with geometric shapes against a thick black background that has been repeatedly layered and scraped. After a while, a viewer makes out the stark outline of apartment houses and parking spaces seen from an overhead perspective, and there are indeed no green spaces there--a real problem in a city that has boomed with little urban planning.

Clearly, environmental concerns are on his mind, Ruanova says by phone. However, he said, "I try to use context but not paint context. I think context is not just physical, it's also ideas. That piece is mostly based on fears I have right now--one of my concerns is my quality of living, my fear [is] if you just let it be, it will just be."

His other work in the exhibition, the multi-part "Children Shoot-out: The Seven Stages of a Laser Beam" is more art-world-referential. "It reveals the process of painting," he explains. Part 1 is an inkjet print on canvas that replicates an original painting. Part 2 is that painting, now divided into seven canvasses, in which the paint has been methodically lifted from the surface, one section at a time. "It's the painting I unpainted," he says. Part 3 is a rod that is covered with dense layers of that lifted paint. "I was trying to separate image from paint."

Ituarte likens Ruanova's process to Tijuana itself. "The city is like starting, then erasing and starting again," he suggests. "It's part of Tijuana culture, this constant transformation." *

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"PINTURAFRESCA," Luckman Gallery, Cal State Los Angeles, 5151 State University Drive, L.A. Dates: Friday to Dec. 15. Open Mondays-Thursdays and Saturdays, 12-5 p.m. Prices: Free admission. Phone: (323) 343-6604.

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