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ART REVIEW : Urban Scrawl Elevated at Pico House Galleria on Olvera Street

August 29, 1989|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

Utter the dread word graffiti to any respectable burgher and his neck hairs bristle porcupine-style. Blight of neighborhoods, spawn of twerp gangsters emblazoning emblems of their infatuations, hostilities and alliances on my nice clean fence, my beloved city's underpasses and just about anything else flat and fixed. Don't these mini-marauders know that it can cost hundreds to clean up their mess? Just vandals.

Or artists.

Not long ago, a local chap who calls himself Eriberto spotted some young guys spraying intently away. Eriberto being a people's aesthete--and art coordinator at the Pico House Galleria--was less appalled by defacement than impressed by talent. Gallery director Angelica Gonzalez added her enthusiasm and the sprayers were brought in from the heat.

They set to work painting mural-size hunks of plywood that--after several weeks of false starts, attacks of nerves and practical impediments--jelled into some 10 pictures and an exhibition called "Burning Desire." It opened Saturday at the Galleria, 432 Main St., on the Olvera Street Plaza, and will continue for four weeks. Maybe six.

It is the sort of touchingly well-intentioned, quasi-sociological, semi-political, let's-do-the-show-in-the-barn phenomenon that normally sets the professional critic frantically seeking the nearest exit.

Happily, "Burning Desire" happens to have brought five rough-diamond, grass-roots virtuosos into the light. These youngsters, who range in age from just 18 to 21, have among them perfectly amazing pictorial gifts.

All have nom-de-spray-can nicknames. Richard Wyrgatscht, known as Slick, pursues a motif in which a cadaverous male figure is shown in tortured postures writhing in paranoid spaces suggesting imprisonment. They are expressively corny and lugubrious. That may be pure immaturity or it may be because the organizers insisted that the artists paint to some sort of theme, which they normally don't do. None of that clunkiness, however, is nearly as impressive as Slick's ability to make space speak emotionally and to render complex anatomy with ordinary spray paint.

Hector Rios (Hex) grapples with the new L.A. in a mural-size composition showing the the destruction of the old city in favor of glitzy developments like that on Bunker Hill. Skeletons in serapes and sombreros point to the whitened sepulcher of corporate high-rises and ask, "Progress?" Pollution oozes down the mountain. Johnos Ferrari (Skill) pursues the pollution theme in more abstract fashion.

The organizers showed the largely untrained artists reproductions of Siqueros' revolutionary murals and they grasped both his attitudes and his sense of monumental space.

All of this would appear to border on the miraculous if we didn't know that the sort of traditional artistic prodigy represented by this quintet is more in the realm of the unusual than the magical. Most high school classes include two or three kids--often otherwise undistinguished--who can draw like angels. As often as not, their talent is born to blush unseen when the babies come or the factory job takes too much overtime. Oh yeah, I used to draw a little.

These artists represent the tireless inventiveness of street kids with their mixed longings to rebel and to be loved. The urge has spawned endless inventive clothing fashions from pachuco to punk and great dances from boogie to break. Put next to the best New York subway graffiti, this work is competitive without absolutely expanding the genre.

What we see here are five guys with the right stuff facing a panoply of possibilities. If they got a look at the current world of fine arts, dominated more by strategy and ideas than pictorial density, they might well flee in disgust. But there are plenty of other options. Hex uses the spray can with the deftness of an airbrush. You could see him as an animator for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

Armando Santiago (Mandoe) paints a layered abstract composition that combines Pollock's all-over style with aspects of Cubism and trick 3-D cartoon lettering. He has a lovely sense of delicate color that opens possibilities that range from fine art to decorative design.

Eric Montenegro (Duke) appears a bit off here but he still straddles possibilities from spooky Expressionism to billboards.

As it stands, however, these guys are all good at what they already do, spray-painting in the distinctive graffiti manner. It might be a very good thing for the town and everybody's retaining wall if that style could be seen as a branch of the urban mural movement. Graffiti art potentially shares the different-but-legitimate aesthetic of outdoor murals. Maybe it's time to give these guys some walls and see what they can do.

Of course, there is always the danger that robbing graffiti of its rebellious edge would take fun out of it and it would just disappear.

Burghers will please stop applauding.

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