Essential Arts: How Paul Pescador uses cartoons to explore intimate and civic spaces
The weekend is young, and I’m feeling partial to patty melts and Bloody Marys (with gobs of horseradish, por please). I’m Carolina A. Miranda, arts and urban design columnist at the Los Angeles Times, with the week’s essential culture news — and chihuahua imitators.
Our cartoon avatars
The cartoon is endlessly malleable, able to serve as a staple of children’s programming even as it questions gender norms (e.g. Bugs Bunny) or functions as a proponent of U.S. foreign policy (may I introduce you to U.S. soft power ambassador Donald Duck?).
Artist Paul Pescador is interested in cartoons for those reasons but for many others, too: their saturated color, their emotionality — cartoons are pure melodrama — and their ability to render bodies in inventive ways. “There is no more abstract version of the body than the cartoon,” says Pescador. “You shift a pencil line and you make something more curved, and you make it more feminine. It can make this remarkable change to how the body is constructed.”
For the record:
10:13 AM, May. 10, 2021In a previous version of this story, the Sheri Bernstein item in the In Other News section did not specify that she has been named director of the Skirball Cultural Center’s museum, not the entire center.
This comic visual language is employed to intimate effect in “The Emancipation of P.P.,” the artist’s ongoing solo show at Tyler Park Presents in Silver Lake.
Over the last two years, the artist, who is trans and non-binary, has been taking informal selfies as a way of charting their body at different moments in time.
“I went to a nail salon and got my nails done, and I was like ‘Oh, I like this.’” Click. A selfie.
“Then I bought some red lipstick because I had wanted to try red lipstick.” Click. Another selfie.
It was a habit that grew more frequent over the past year, with Pescador frequently posting the images to their Instagram account. “I had very intensely begun to think about my relationship to gender,” they say, “and it was all really done in a public manner.”
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The selfies form a poignant primary material for the artist’s collages on view at Tyler Park. There, Pescador presents them whole and in fragments, remixing them with objects and drawings that are common to cartooning: large googly eyes, big toothy grins, composite cartoon characters fabricated out of cheap toys and bright fabrics.
In one collage, a somewhat sinister-looking balloon figure is surrounded by images of the artist — one of which features only their head, absent their mouth, as if silenced. In another, a purple figure bearing a mask of Thanos, the villain from the “Avengers” series, is surrounded by a series of expressive cartoon eyes. Also in the mix are the artist’s own eyes, which peer at the viewer from a corner of the collage.
The cartoon imagery, along with all of the bright colors, gives the collages a lighthearted visual buoyancy on first impact. But examine the details, and far more serious themes emerge about the continuous scrutiny to which trans bodies are subjected. (Case in point: Draconian legislation recently passed by Florida’s House of Representatives would allow schools to request genital examinations of student athletes.)
The work, says Pescador, is “a way to work through this uncomfortableness of being seen and what does it mean to be looked at as a trans body.”
The collages also reflect the ways in which identities can be built in fresh and imaginative ways.
It’s not the first time that Pescador has used cartoonish elements to explore serious subjects.
In 2019, they created a series of four videos for the arts journal X-TRA that examines the physical and social legacies of four important L.A. buildings: Union Station, the John Ferraro building (home to the Department of Water and Power), City Hall and the old Parker Center. These employ crudely drawn animations with live action video and puppetry — along with the artist’s deadpan narration — to discuss issues such as governance and displacement.
“PSA,” on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles through the end of the month, is made in a similar style. For that piece, Pescador interviewed people who work in or with government to answer a series of big-picture questions about what government is and how it should function. The myriad points are illustrated with news video, drawings, puppets, dolls and dime-store bric-a-brac.
Given the events of the last seven months — including a presidential election and an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — the conversations are incredibly affecting. And the visuals? At times, hilarious.
The work makes highly complex issues feel more accessible. “You may not be able to understand it through this lens or that lens,” says Pescador of their approach, “but you may see it through these deeply saturated cartoons.”
To complex issues, Pescador brings deep insight and a mordant visual wit. Who says funny cartoons can’t also be dead serious?
Plays and players
This past week, my husband and I saw Jay Leno cruising through Beverly Hills in a ’58 Chrysler Imperial. And Times theater critic Charles McNulty went to an IRL work of theater. L.A. is obviously healing.
OK, “A Thousand Ways (Part Two): An Encounter,” staged by the experimental theater troupe 600 Highwaymen, courtesy of CAP UCLA, is hardly your average bit of proscenium performance. Instead, for the course of an hour, McNulty sat opposite a stranger, and together they responded to a series of prompts. “‘An Encounter’ often feels like one of those psychological experiments on university campuses that recruit students with a Starbucks gift card,” he writes. “But the piece seems ultimately designed for a therapeutic purpose: to get to us to see the malleability of the narratives we project onto each other.”
McNulty is still keeping a foot in the virtual world with a review of “Someone Else’s House,” the latest offering from the Geffen Playhouse’s Stayhouse series. Written and performed by multimedia artist Jared Mezzochi and directed by Margot Bordelon, the piece, he writes, “tests whether a haunted house can stand on a virtual foundation.”
Meanwhile, our games critic Todd Martens checked out a work of virtual theater that takes on a hybrid format: part video game, part live-action play. “Black Feminist Video Game” — which was written by Darrel Alejandro Holnes, directed by Victoria Collado and staged by a New York-based ensemble called the Civilians — “dives into the performative worlds of video game streaming sites, video chats and virtual classes, where the always-on cameras and chorus of cheerleaders and trolls combine to create an overwhelming fear of seeking validation in others.”
Contributor Margaret Gray has a sit-down with author and playwright Dan O’Brien about his new book of essays, which chronicles the struggles he and his wife, actress and comedian Jessica St. Clair, have faced over the last several years, among them O’Brien’s colon cancer diagnosis right as St. Clair was finishing treatment for breast cancer. “Jessica and I feel very strongly that we want to create art that makes meaning out of what we’ve been through,” he says.
Our pandemic year
It seems that every journalist has a story they were writing when the pandemic hit — and that COVID-19’s mortal realities rendered irrelevant. Mine was about Maya Lin’s redesign of Neilson Library at Smith College, designed in collaboration with the Boston-based firm Shepley Bulfinch. My story also touched on Lin’s preparations for an art installation in New York City titled “Ghost Forest.”
Fourteen months after I started the story, I finally finished it. What had begun as a story about a building, and the ways women design for women, ultimately became a story about change and loss and the ways we will need to come together to survive disasters of our own making.
If all the world is a stage, it is one that has lain empty since the pandemic took hold. Are we ready to get back on it? As life begins to return to some semblance of normal, Charles McNulty writes that it could induce a case of stage fright: “Having been sequestered for as long as we have, we’re out of practice in the art of appearances.”
Architectural critic Alexandra Lange says that what kids need after the pandemic is a “summer of play.” And it’s likely something they have needed for a long time. “Locked playgrounds became a visible flashpoint during a period when the safest place to congregate was outside,” she writes in Bloomberg CityLab, “but walling children off from the outdoors is really the project of decades, not a single year.” Philadelphia, she reports, offers an interesting model: Its Playstreets program turns 300 participating streets into play zones every summer.
“At least six sculptures, potentially as many as 19, stolen during an 1897 massacre by British colonists in Africa have been sitting quietly in two Los Angeles art museum collections for the past half-century,” writes Times art critic Christopher Knight.
Those objects, looted from the Royal Palace in Benin City in what is now southern Nigeria and held by LACMA and UCLA’s Fowler Museum, are at the heart of an ongoing repatriation battle. Their return, writes Knight, “is as essential as restitution for art looted during the Holocaust.”
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Matt Cooper has two dozen cultural happenings, both IRL and virtual — including concerts by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the We Rise festival, which includes a series of 21 projects by local artists in locations around L.A. The festival includes a nightly video projection of a performance by Dorian Wood and Carmina Escobar at REDCAT in downtown, an installation by Eddie Rodolfo Aparacio at Clockshop and many, many more!
Cooper also rounds up the must-see museum exhibitions for May, including shows at the Wende Museum, the California African American Museum and the Japanese American National Museum.
Plus, Deborah Vankin reports that the Hammer Museum has debuted a streaming platform on its site, Hammer Channel, that features thousands of artist talks, historical lectures and filmmaker panels, including a 2018 conversation with Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett and Chadwick Boseman about the history-making “Black Panther.”
If you have not yet made an appointment to see the Hammer’s “Made in L.A. 2020: a version,” by all means, do! The biennial is spread out over two locations, the Hammer and the Huntington Library. Thus far, I’ve been able to see the Hammer portion — and it was worth the wait after a year of COVID-induced delays. The independent curators, Myriam Ben Salah and Lauren Mackler, along with Hammer assistant curator Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi, have put together a beautifully paced show that gives the work room to breathe and avoids the cluttered, kitchen-sink approach of so many biennials.
Plus, the works in question feel prescient, probing the nature of identity — including the signifiers of whiteness — and the ways in which narratives about history are established. Christopher Knight reviewed the show back in November, when it was unclear whether it might ever open. And early this year, I profiled participating artist Reynaldo Rivera, whose photographs have recorded L.A.’s intersecting queer and bohemian scenes.
It was great to finally see the show IRL. I was particularly intrigued by Brandon D. Lander’s wry paintings of family and friends. In a year of living virtually, there is something wondrous about looking at objects that reveal an artist’s hand.
In case you are a terrible procrastinator: Cooper has a round-up of Mother’s Day things to do.
Patrick O’Connell, the founding director of Visual AIDS, an advocacy group that helped support artists who had contracted HIV and fought the stigma that surrounded AIDS with actions that included the donning of a red ribbon, has died at the age of 67.
Michelangelo Lovelace, a Cleveland artist known for his vivid street scenes and the sketches he made of people he cared for as a nursing home aide, is dead at 60.
Martin Bookspan, a radio and television announcer known as the voice of the PBS series “Live From Lincoln Center,” has died at 94.
Olympia Dukakis, a veteran of the stage who won an Academy Award for her turn as the tart-tongued mother in the 1987 romantic comedy “Moonstruck,” is dead at 89. “I did not become an actor in order to become famous or rich,” she once said. “I became an actor so I could play the great parts.”
Sharon Pollock, a Canadian playwright known for “Blood Relations,” a 1980 stage work inspired by the Lizzie Borden murders, has died at 85.
Jacques d’Amboise, a star dancer for New York City Ballet who helped popularize the form in the United States while also making appearances in movie musicals like “Carousel,” is dead at 86.
In other news
— A show at the Kunstmuseum in Switzerland presents art from both North and South Korea, and neither side is wild about it.
— Good read by the New York Times’ Jenna Wortham on the work of photographer Deana Lawson: “Lawson’s style has become synonymous with finding glamour in the quotidian, establishing it as already beautiful, already enough.”
— A 57-year-old man has been charged with setting the blaze that severely damaged the roof and interiors of the landmark San Gabriel Mission last summer.
— Sheri Bernstein has been named the new director of the Skirball Cultural Center’s museum, and the Lucas Museum’s Pilar Tompkins Rivas has joined the board of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts — and other art world moves.
— The Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation has a new residency that will serve as a pathway to leadership roles for midcareer directors and choreographers of color.
— “Defaced monuments provide a visible record of how people have responded to, interacted with and contested racist historical narratives in public space.” There’s a great essay by Tsione Wolde-Michael about the ways in which we can rethink the display of racist monuments in Hyperallergic.
— This column by the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins is basically a laundry list of why cities shouldn’t host the Olympics. (Cough, cough, L.A.)
— Last week, I ended my newsletter with urbanism’s latest TikTok star: a civil engineer known as Mr. Barricade. Well, thankfully, the San Jose Mercury News delivers a fuller biography.
And last but not least ...
If dog breeds were people. So much truth in that chihuahua imitation.
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