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ART REVIEWS : Fun and Games? Don't Be So Sure

April 29, 1993|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A colorful carnival of masquerade and make-believe takes substantial shape in Ruben Ortiz Torres' lively street photographs. Posers preen, marionettes dance, kids don costumes and impersonators swagger. Plastic statuettes of religious figures and cheap duplications of Hollywood cartoon characters intensify the intoxicating atmosphere of revelry and celebration.

In this vivacious parade of flagrant fakery and exaggerated display, kitsch and ritual intermingle at a feverish pitch. But all is not fun and games in Ortiz's brightly colored and playfully framed photographs at Jan Kesner Gallery. More precisely, the fun and games in his exhibition have very serious underpinnings.

The difficult issue of cultural identity enters Ortiz's art with force and clarity. The life-and-death battle between racist stereotypes and empowering self-definition lies just beneath the super-glossy surfaces of his flashy, powerful photographs.

Their casual, snapshot quality is belied by the incisive sophistication with which Ortiz outlines and elaborates upon an often troublesome and increasingly prevalent aspect of contemporary social reality.

The 29-year-old, L.A.-based artist was born in Mexico City and educated there before he earned his M.F.A. at CalArts last year. The 12 photographs in his first solo show in Los Angeles are timely and moving because they don't draw stark lines between oppressors and victims.

Ortiz's images refuse to take sides in an imaginary battle between good and evil not because they're indecisive or conciliatory, but because they reject the idea that society divides so neatly into opposed categories.

They belong to a world in which divisions between peoples can be traced back to divisions within individuals. The terrain they stake out is that of psychological ambivalence, of charged mismatches between desire and belief, where projection and self-deception cross paths with fear and fantasy.

Ortiz's multilayered art gives voice to the silent complicity that accompanies cultural repression and almost always exists on both sides of the fence. His work demonstrates that forms of domination and exclusion can usually be turned against themselves and used pointedly and subversively.

It is extremely significant that Ortiz's photographs examine cultural--not national--identity. His prints begin with the premise that contemporary art is different from folk art and crafts. They insist that to pretend otherwise is to bury one's head in the sand, to invite ghettoization and dismissal.

His pictures proceed from the conviction that TV and movies have laid the groundwork--for better or for worse--for some kind of true, if perverse, international culture. In a world unified by cliches and stereotypes, Ortiz's photographs show that the way out of the mess does not lie in a nostalgic vision of uncorrupted, indigenous authenticity, but in a contradictory present riddled with absurdity, humor and hope.

Jan Kesner Gallery, 164 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 938-6834, through May 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Quirky Constructions: In his first solo show in eight years, L.A.-based artist Jerry Brane comes back with a strong body of work that is at once humble and puzzling, intimate and indecipherable. His installation of odd objects, curious sculptures and strange paintings at Cirrus Gallery is both vaguely familiar and utterly foreign.

There's nothing here that bowls you over with full-blown originality. By the same token, none of Brane's quirky constructions seems to derive from anything else being made today. The feeling that predominates the exhibition is that you've stumbled into an eccentric relative's attic and are the first to see things he's made in his spare time for himself alone.

In the past, Brane made accomplished and sensitive abstract paintings. His works from the last five years still lean toward abstraction, but with a new hands-on grittiness. The hilarious "Beautiful Object With Two Pedestals" is exactly that: a softly finished, curved block of wood that stands upright or lies on its side, depending on which lumpy plaster pedestal you set it.

Other monochromatic wood sculptures sit on pedestals draped with deep green fabric. Like little monuments to the mundane, they appear to be concrete chunks that have fallen out of abstract landscapes. They have the presence of personal mementos or weighty sketches made by an irrepressible tinkerer.

Gracefully curved wood panels painted with casein or enamel and others into which innumerable tacks have been methodically or madly pounded, speak poignantly of the aspiration to make something beautiful and the frustration of the task going bad. Brane infuses his work with a sense of humility--and a sense of humor--that gives it a fresh, often charming buoyancy.

Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alameda St., (213) 680-3473, through May 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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