For the final non-student exhibitions of the school year, Ventura College's two art galleries are hosting work as potent and challenging as any seen here all year.
Los Angeles-based artists Cynda Valle and Chris Hero have little in common, apart from an interest in social commentary that often touches on less-than-idyllic aspects of life in Los Angeles. Valle's paintings temper their themes with brightly-hued, surrealistic window dressing; Hero's art makes a grittier, more blunt statement, expressing muted but palpable rage over conditions before and during the Los Angeles riots of two years ago.
But together these shows handily illustrate why some of the most provocative art in the county passes through these hallowed halls. The college's exhibition program has proven to be a local haven for art with no blatant commercial potential. The art here, as seen with the work of Valle and Hero, often comes armed with agendas that extend beyond art for art's sake.
In her mystical yet gregarious paintings, Valle deploys a cheeky blend of magic realism and socio-psychobabble. If at times Valle leans on cheap theatricality in lieu of substance, she has enough skill and fresh ideas about narrative and composition to make her show generally enticing.
The most striking work is "Ode to Mrs. Burroughs," using as a point of departure the accidental shooting death of Beat era icon William Burroughs' wife, while also touching on the mythology of William Tell and the story of Eve (of Adam and apple fame). In this diptych tucked into a corner, the crease of the wall aligns with the subject's bullet wound, bisecting two dimensions--the mortal garden and a nether world where a mermaid sits against a stage-like red curtain.
In this case, too much is just right.
Sometimes in Valle's work, areas of crisp clarity are engulfed by tangly patterns of undergrowth sneaking up from the background. In "Jewelbox," a frankly portrayed semi-nude woman--an object in a jewelbox--stands in a kitchen that is aswirl in floral patterns bleeding over from the wallpaper. Floral print threatens to consume her.
Valle swerves from the subtle, magical realm to an almost comical heavy-handedness. You have to wonder if a painterly tongue is in cheek in "Motherearth," with a mother and child overlaid with sinister cartoon images of decadence and torment, or "Lady Famine," with a well-fed white woman being clawed at by phantom-like, emaciated Third World citizens.
"Death of a Salesman" focuses on a rocket-propelled man with a contented grin, zooming up over what we presume to be the moral/cultural wasteland of the Los Angeles sprawl. Valle, too, seems to want to rise above the superficiality of La-La Land, but can stoop to the showbizzy garishness and slick presentation that are sometimes its imports.
From a more rewarding corner of her aesthetic, we also see "S-S-Snake," in which a sleeping figure is coyly viewed in a roomful of flying snakes--a pleasantly, blatantly dream world image. Valle works best on the turf of articulate dreaming.
There is nothing slick or calculating about the work of Chris Hero, whose tough, rough-hewn work focuses on such street realities as life during riots, and have nothing to do with the make-believe world of Hollywood. His are loosely assembled pieces, as if made under pressure, with no time for the luxury of polish.
A glance at Hero's bio is telling. He was a paramedic for the New Orleans Police Department and was fired after reporting a case of police brutality. He then pursued fine art, and now often renders, in immediate terms, what he sees as the strong arm of the law.
One gripping scene of police brutality in Detroit, "In Other Cities: Malis Green," is a large, irregularly shaped mural made of sheets of drawing paper. "Riot Landscape" comes replete with an actual brick attached to the artwork's plexiglass covering.
Most dramatically, "Now We Can Make Arrest: L.A. Riot," is a splashily excessive multi-paneled work with quasi-religious overtones. In the center canvas, armed peacekeepers flank a suspect hung upside down, by the feet. Above, angels wield bullhorns and a God-like Daryl Gates speaks before celestial microphones. Below are panels depicting Hades in our back yard, with stenciled letters reading: "Complete Social-Legal Breakdown."
While making no concessions on the issue of whether art and social comment mix, Hero shows that guerrilla art can also be graceful. Underscoring the urgency of the subjects and the scrappy renderings is a bold sense of draftsmanship and a generally assured artistry.
Hero knows when to regale us with specifics and when to pull back for the general view, when to zoom in close on human suffering and when to get a broader perspective on urban unraveling. A romantic aura of desolation graces the dark, bleak streets of his "Riot Landscape," full of vulnerable architectural cubes and quiet dread.
Murky in more ways than one, "The Night Sky Show" shows an urban area surveyed by the raking searchlights of police helicopters. It's hardly an idyllic nocturnal scene, but through Hero's incisive view, it is beautiful in spite of its dire subject.
Dealing with admittedly loaded subjects--and scenes that are closer to home than many of us care to acknowledge--Hero manages to carve out an effective path between the confrontational and the artful.
* WHO: Cynda Valle and Chris Hero.
* WHEN: Through Friday.
* WHERE At the Gallery 2 and New Media Gallery, Ventura College, 4667 Telegraph Road in Ventura.
* FYI: 654-6400, Ext. 1030.