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Santa Monica

November 06, 1987|MARLENA DONOHUE

Part of "The Four," an activist group of Chicano artists back in the '70s, Frank Romero has always made work that balances acculturation into the American mainstream with a staunch connection to ethnic Mexican and Chicano roots. Romero effects this cross-cultural juggling act with a formula that includes several elements: a folkish-style of representation and craftsmanship, the calligraphic line seen in Mexican art (from the fenestrations on pre-Columbian statuary to Sequeiros' murals), passionate color and a Pop or comic-strip sensibility applied to the Mexican/Chicano experience.

A current show of wood constructions and paintings offers California palms in the shape of a table, painted portraits of Day of the Dead specters and rolling hills that could be in Spain or the fruit fields of Cesar Chavez. We also get a customized VW parked in front of what looks like a huge church door. The antagonistic but powerful hold of both the church and machismo rears its head in this seemingly benign toylike piece that typifies the way Romero operates.

In a table supported by a crouching Blondie and Dagwood nude, Romero unfortunately buys the American dictum that gimmick is king, while a series of quiet ranch houses demonstrates by omission that he is at his best when he lets work churn and vibrate just this side of chaos. Romero accomplishes this admirably in an electric still life with deer horns. In "The Ghost of Evergreen Cemetery," probably the best painting in the show, Romero recalls East L.A. in the '50s, complete with midnight eateries, a trolley, and good and evil spirits under a pulsating moon. (Robert Berman Gallery, 180 Marine St., to Nov. 30.)

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