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THE BIG MIX : Art : An Art That Cuts Close to the Bone : Works of 30 artists at LACMA capture grit and vitality of the Latino experience

February 05, 1989|WILLIAM WILSON

It's a hot night on the highway near the Texas-Mexico border. Up ahead in the distance a red neon blinks "Honky Tonk." Hon-kee-tonk. You pull up. A cold beer would taste good, but from the looks of the place you better take off your tie and leave the Ralph Lauren blazer in the car. Hectic music comes oompa out the door. Well, you'll fit in all right; after all, you've got Linda Ronstadt's "Canciones di mi Padre" album right there in the tape deck. Dos Equis. Order a Dos Equis. Practice your Spanish. Dos Equis, por favor .

You peek in the door and suddenly the scene seems to freeze as if all the figures were cut out of cardboard. A stringy blond woman in cowboy boots dances with a trucker with a red mustache and a nose to match. They seem to be stuffed into one pair of Levis. An old drunk lounges limply at the bar and a lady who looks like she lives on a diet of tequila, hot peppers and men swings provocatively. She knows she's a number even if nobody else does.

Maybe this isn't the place for you after all. You turn back to the car, which has somehow been transformed into a death wagon. A skeleton sits smiling hungrily in the driver's seat.

The hallucination fades. In reality you are at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art standing in front of Luis Jimenez's raunchy "Honky Tonk" tableau in the exhibition "Hispanic Art in the United States," a traveling show of 30 painters and sculptors that will probably cause a lot of talk before it closes April 10. There is a tendency these days to mix up art and real life so it's possible to imagine some up-scale Latin-Americans being offended by the gritty underbelly sensibility that dominates much of the show. This certainly is not the cosmopolitan Latino culture you see as you watch the beautiful Graziella Rincon anchor the news on cable TV's GALA channel.

There may be art folks who find themselves indignant at the idea of artists being shown in a prestigious forum "just because" they are Latino or conversely worried that the artists are being ghettoized by being grouped this way, the way people used to worry when there were a lot of shows of so-called women's art.

One thing is sure: Whatever aspect of this show anybody chooses to get touchy about will be nowhere nearly as complicated as the reality behind this art. After all, Latino culture outside the United States is already a richly interwoven historical stew. When you mix that with the other national and racial layers that make up U.S. culture you have an embroidery of countless resonances.

Significantly, a previous exhibition devoted to L.A. artist Billy Al Bengston was just coming down as the Latino show was being installed. Bengston's rich, hot palette and love of the decorative blended so seamlessly with the Latino-inspired art you got the feeling he could not have gotten along without the exuberant Latino sensibility that is so much part of the local environment. At the same time a real low-rider 1950 Chevy by Gilbert Lujan was being unloaded to be presented as an artwork called "Our Family Car." It would probably not be swallowable as art if it were not for Bengston's pioneering the notion of the aesthetic significance of adolescent hot-rod culture. And don't forget Ed Kienholz's "Back Seat Dodge '38."

The Latino show is loaded with influences that range from German Expressionism to Neo-Expressionism, all intermixed with traditional Latino popular arts. There are carved santos and macabre paraphernalia from El Dia de Los Muertes. Rudy Fernandez's painted relief, "Mocking Me," shows a bird perched on a cactus near a patched heart and a big knife. It is the visual transcription of a million Mexican ballads where the lover's corazon has been stabbed by disappointment. If the show is vulnerable to the charge of not being very original, so is every comparable exhibition in these less-than-inventive times.

What we really get from this ensemble is a distinctive mythology, a kind of barrio poetry whose inescapable authenticity makes considerations of politics, sociology and history seem as petty as a frozen dinner.

It is a vision of life lived closer to the bone than most middle-class people dare to contemplate. It has an almost medieval immediacy alternately bejeweled and austere. Pedro Perez makes golden crosses encrusted with glass gems and jollied up with leering cartoon characters. Roberto Gil De Montes' little painting "Recuerdeme" portrays a cadaverous smoker in a carved frame decorated with skulls. In this world there are no buffer zones between gaiety and violence, affection and cruelty, vivacity and death. Here is life watched with one eye on the raw meat of reality and the other rolled backward in its socket staring at magic wafting from monstrous flowers like purple perfume.

It is impossible to look at the show and not think of Latin America's magic realist literature by Jorge Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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