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Carrying on a Tradition in Papier-Mache : Art: Mexico's Linares family gains international attention for its life-sized calavera sculptures. In a rare local exhibition--the artists' first commercial gallery show--works by three family members are on view in Santa Monica.

December 03, 1991|SHAUNA SNOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charlie Chaplin stands at attention as cameramen zoom in for the shot. Production crews are busy nearby, running backup cameras, holding a microphone, snapping the clapboard.

But as in a real-life Chaplin film, the scene is silent. The frozen characters are all macabre, displaying wide, toothy grins. For Chaplin and the filmmakers are calaveras-- humanized papier-mache skeletons created by three generations of master Mexican folk artists from the famed Linares family.

"It's important that our family work continues," says Pedro Linares, 85, a spry, smiling patriarch who, along with Oaxacan wood carver Manuel Jimenez and a few others, holds the distinction of being internationally recognized for a traditional Mexican art form where anonymity is the norm.

Linares, along with three of his sons and a handful of grandsons, works at a multi-studio compound in Mexico City creating numerous calaveras-- from dancers and musicians to newspaper delivery boys. Popularized versions of the Linares calaveras are most frequently seen in local galleries and stores during the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday, an annual Nov. 1 celebration of the continued life of deceased ancestors.

In a rare Los Angeles exhibition--and the artists' first commercial gallery show--works by Pedro Linares, son Miguel, 42, and grandson Ricardo, 23, are on view through December in a temporary gallery space in Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade. On sale from $500 to $3,500 per sculpture, the central pieces are a group of 20 or so life-size and "half-size" calaveras engaged in the various activities of filmmaking.

"We wanted to do the movie theme because we're all in that business--that's our connection," said gallery owner Judith Bronowski, who commissioned the Linareses' works as part of the city-wide "Artes de Mexico" and "Mexico: A Work of Art" festivals. Bronowski, an independent film producer, has represented the Linares in the United States since making the 1975 documentary, "Pedro Linares: Papier-Mache Artist," which will be shown at the L.A. County Museum of Art on Dec. 21.

"This (body of work) is very important to us, because it's a new theme," said Miguel Linares, who began as a cartonero (papier-mache sculptor) at the age of 12 . "We usually make calaveras doing traditional jobs, and with traditional Mexican themes, so this is really something new."

At the gallery, where the Spanish-speaking Linareses will give demonstrations throughout the show on most days (call ahead to assure a demonstration time), Pedro Linares calls his work as a cartonero his livelihood and joy. He takes a fatherly pride in each of his works (and those of his descendants) as he thumbs through catalogues documenting the progression of his art form since he began his work in 1920.

"My father was also a cartonero, but he made only masks, little horses, very simple things--he was not a sculptor of papier-mache," Pedro recounts. "What I began is very different from anything that was done back then."

But it was Miguel Linares who explained his family's importance in developing the popular calavera tradition.

"Before (us) there were others who made calaveras, but they were very simple, with no details and no themes. We based ours directly on (artist) Guadalupe Posada's engravings developed on Day of the Dead themes in turn-of-the-century Mexico. . . . And now, we make calaveras on all themes."

In addition to the popular calaveras, and related cascaras (skulls), the Linares family also makes traditional Judas figures, which are created annually to be set aflame with fireworks on Good Friday to represent the Biblical betrayal of Jesus by Judas.

"Last year we made Judas figures of Saddam Hussein, and we won't tell you who else we made," Miguel Linares says with a laugh, noting that while his Judases are usually Mexican political figures, other world leaders--including Americans--are not immune from the fire's wrath.

But it's not the Judas figures, or even the calaveras, that are Miguel's personal favorite sculptures--he prefers to make the family's famous alebrijes : bright, fantastic, dragon-like creatures with flickering tongues, huge eyes and numerous horns.

"I saw them in a dream," Pedro Linares explains of the alebrijes, a name he made up for the characters, more than a dozen of which are also on view. "They were very ugly and terrifying and they were coming toward me. I saw all kinds of ugly things."

Linares says he had that single dream toward the end of an extended illness--he had fought gastric ulcers for 11 years, and at one-point in 1945, was thought to be on his death-bed. He says it was while he was in a 24-hour coma-like state, surrounded by candles, that the alebrijes were born.

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