From Canyon to Cove: More to Zayas show than gunmetal

First thing I said when I saw the magnificent paintings by Victor Hugo Zayas now hanging at Laguna Art Museum was "They're like modern Turners." Bingo.

I know everyone's all agog over the three tons of discarded firearms that Zayas used to create some dozen sculptures, which were unveiled at the Feb. 25 opening of his show, "Mi Obra," ["My Work"] to an appreciative crowd, but one that lacked the promised appearance of LAPD Chief Charlie Beck.

Nevertheless, LAPD officers made their presence known and said the obligatory things: what can one say when gazing upon the bent, twisted metal of handguns other than, "Thank goodness they're off the streets."

Having sat in a Los Angeles criminal courtroom while reporting in that gang-infested city, and having lived blocks from the Oakwood area of Venice and the regular carnage, seeing suspects' weapons brandished by prosecutors and interviewing some reformed gang members, I can attest to the fear these weapons and their handlers inspire.

Beck's stand-in, LAPD spokesman Patrick Gannon, bluntly told the crowd that there have been more than 4,000 murders in South L.A. since the 1990s. Gannon, who worked the area for 35 years, apparently was instrumental in providing Zayas with the means to make this kind of chilling art.

"I knew of the artist's studio and café, and that he taught art to the kids in the neighborhood," Gannon said. "A friendship grew, and a year ago he [Zayas] said he'd like to do a series with guns. We have gun buy-backs twice a year, and he was able to turn these instruments of death into beautiful art forms.

"He captures the victims and pays tribute to them."

But can deadly weapons really inspire art, or, even further, "symbolize peace" as the museum press materials promise?

For me, sadly, no.

They still resemble what they are: machines of destruction. In fact, an occupation for many at the opening was to decipher the muzzle of this gun and the handle of that one in the mesh of metal, welded together and refashioned, but just barely.

The Mexican-American artist apparently got the idea to use guns that were voluntarily surrendered in "buy-backs" sponsored by the LAPD because his studio is in an L.A. neighborhood where guns are part of the backdrop of his life, according to guest curator Gregorio Luke, who also spoke at the reception.

"These are moving works of a man trying to make sense of the world around him," said Luke, the former director of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. "Through the grace of the LAPD, he was able to make sculptures that will be emblems of peace."

Zayas was humble and charming as he made a brief appearance.

"I've been painting for 25 years, and this is a night I can't forget," he said. "Normally they tell you you can't play with guns, but this how I play with guns — transform them into something beautiful."

But as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Now for something really beautiful, after you take in the message of the grisly metal sculptures, do gaze upon Zayas' large paintings, mostly abstract landscapes that, as LAM's new executive director, Malcolm Warner, commented (to my personal delight), call to mind the English painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851).

Turner's paintings, mostly watercolors, fill many museums in London with a marvel of back-lighting and the fogbound moodiness of the English seaports. Yet there are similarities with Zayas' work: bold brushwork, lavish yet subtle color and the intensity of the subject matter.

Zayas looks around contemporary Southern California for inspiration: he has painted scenes of the 1993 firestorms, and has a series of portraits of rocks. He also became interested in painting LA's bridges at night—and stayed on to paint even after someone fired a shot at him.

He started out drawing in a cafe on napkins in exchange for food: some of those napkins are now in the hands of private collectors or landed on the covers of magazines.

So how could an artist who grew up straddling the desert-bright Mexican-American border (he lived in Mexico and San Diego, and attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena on a scholarship) produce work so reminiscent of an English master of the 1800s?

That's the magic of art.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 302-1469 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.

If You Go

What: Victor Hugo Zayas, "Mi Obra"

When: Through April 29

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach

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