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ART REVIEWS : 'Iluminado': Insight From Inside


A dark-haired youth in a Raiders jacket leaning against a blond mannequin in a ruffled wedding dress, a group of skeleton-faced Dia de los Muertos participants relaxing by a tombstone and an Aztec dancer reaching for a bottle of Canada Dry are among the eloquent but resolutely unromantic images in "L.A. Iluminado," an exhibition of photographs by eight Chicano artists.

The artists selected by curator Glenna Avila eschew the image/text paradigm that marks much current photographic practice in favor of conventional, so-called "straight" photography. Unlike many photographers working within the documentary and portrait traditions, however, these artists neither exploit nor exoticize their subjects. Their work arises out of a powerful consciousness of ethnicity, and a desire to record the complexities of negotiating ethnic identity in a largely unsympathetic time and place. As such, their work is explicitly political.

Most immediately riveting is Harry Gamboa Jr.'s "Chicano Male Unbonded" series, which subverts the popular stereotype of the Latino male. Gamboa's subjects--artists, writers, composers, phytochemists and students--are photographed from a low vantage point, endowing them with a monumental presence. Unsmiling, arms crossed or shoved in pockets, standing alone on dimly lit street corners or freeway embankments, the figures appear simultaneously dangerous and in danger. They insist that within power lurks vulnerability--and vice versa. Alejandro Rosas' coyly surreal "Latino Artists of Los Angeles" likewise functions both as a series of portraits and as a record of a thriving creative community; especially absorbing is his uncannily self-reflexive portrait of self-portraitist Alfredo de Batuc.

Monica Almeida, Jose Lopez Galvez and Ricardo Valverde work as "street" photographers, stalking street festivals, religious celebrations and funerals in order to capture the tumult, beauty and strong sense of community that marks the largest ethnic group in Los Angeles County. Galvez's photographs of a rally commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium exemplify the enormous power of understated reportage.

Less successful are the self-consciously "artistic" photographs--Christina Fernandez's "Transition" series, which superimposes and counterposes disparate images to create mysterious time-space continuums, and Frank Romero's hand-colored, soft-focus odes to a young, blond neighbor.

"L.A. Iluminado" takes the position that a community is most accurately pictured from within, that the vision of the outsider is somehow defective, skewed by ideological biases or plagued by recalcitrant stereotypes; compare Diane Arbus' desperately self-conscious embrace of "freakishness" to Laura Aguilar's matter-of-fact photographs of pierced and tattooed lesbian couples. But the corollary of this proposition is that the primary concern of artists should be the documentation of their particular subculture or ethnicity.

The danger of these dicta is that they lead directly to ghettoizing exhibitions which are convenient for the art Establishment, but intolerable for those artists systematically excluded from mainstream museum and gallery shows. One exhibition, however, cannot solve this complex problem. And in the meantime, "L.A. Iluminado" must be commended for bringing to light the work of several fine artists and the multiple realities of the L.A. Chicano community.

* Otis/Parsons Gallery, 2401 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 251-0555, through Sept. 21. Closed Sunday and Mondays.

Peculiarities of Perception: In art circles, people use phrases--perhaps too often--like "the commodification of the art object." Robert Millar's gold-swathed wedges remind us that the concept amounts to more than mere artspeak. Artist Louise Lawler once created gift certificates redeemable at the Leo Castelli Gallery. Millar does her one better by recasting Thomas Solomon's Garage as the Ft. Knox of art.

Befitting the recessionary climate, however, the vault is fairly empty, containing just 18 paintings shaped like asymmetrical ingots of shimmering gold. Like units of currency, the paintings are virtually uniform; like sentinels guarding a palace of fine art, they come in pairs.

Of course, critique is only a part of Millar's rich work. For he is also--and perhaps even primarily--interested in the peculiarities of perception. Millar's art occupies the uneasy terrain where painting meets sculpture, the minimal brushes up against the opulent, and light devolves into shadow.

It's all a matter of where you're standing; it's all perpetually in flux. Approached from the side, the works appear as thick black wedges of anodized aluminum, bulging uncomfortably toward the middle. Confronted head-on, their gold-leaf surfaces are bathed in sunlight, the slightly irregular contours exacerbating a hallucinatory shimmer.

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