At present, the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard is genuinely abuzz with paintings that are not, by any definition, wallflowers. Vivid color schemes, large scale and bold imagery--pushing at the limits of realism--make for art that strains to leap off the wall and escape the boundaries of two dimensions.
And that's the point.
A unicorn is flanked by El Salvadoran soldiers in Frank Romero's huge triptych, "Espirito del Pueblo," based on the 15th-Century "Lady of the Unicorn." In Elizabeth Perez's "Heard in Hand," a nude woman holds a heart in her hand, an unequivocal symbol of love lost.
Literally stretching into three dimensions, Margaret Garcias "In the City of the Angels" is a wooden wardrobe painted with scenes of violence and peril contrasted with natural imagery, with angel wings hung inside.
But what distinguishes "The Mystical in Art: Chicano/Latino Painting," one of the finest shows yet hung at the Carnegie, is not its extroverted initial impression. As the show's title suggests, at issue is the expression of inner life, via religious, psychological, mythological, or art-referential windows.
Curator Frank Romero sought to illustrate the theme of mysticism as represented in the work of 13 Chicano and Latino painters, mostly from Southern California. Romero, a well-known artist based in East L. A., was last seen in a one-man show at the Carnegie Art Museum in 1992.
Romero's work includes the "Going to the Olympics" mural on the Hollywood Freeway near Downtown Los Angeles. He is working on a mural for the Metro Red Line Station in L. A. The paintings in his previous show had a generally boisterous presence, but the works at the Carnegie use the Mixografia print-making technique to create delicate images of primitive icons.
Paradoxes often arise in considering these artists, who tend to work in various media and deal with complex issues. Slippery cross-referencing between image, meaning and historical contexts is common.
Culturally, the art here often taps into the Latin American literary legacy of magic realism, using techniques of prickly realism, all shuffled, to expand beyond the surface reality. There is also an obvious link to the contemporary art world, with the revitalized narrative emphasis of postmodernist painting.
Eloy Torrez, for instance, draws on Baroque and Renaissance painting mannerisms and traditions for his pieces, but also tosses in a contemporary spin. The triptych "Damnation of the Spirit" depicts a group of nudes, none too coy, basking in the mysterious light of dusk on a beach. "Spirits of Silverlake" shows a back-yard Bacchanalian revelry replete with accordionist and winged spirits.
Like Romero, Yreina Cervantes is known for her mural work. But for this show, she is represented by small watercolor pieces such as her "Homage to Frida Kahlo." The celebrated Mexican artist Kahlo--who could not bear children--is seen nude and pregnant with twins, and holding a mirror image of Cervantes' own face. Hence, Kahlo is commemorated as a matriarchal presence.
Patssi Valdez, whose paintings here are among the show's most compelling, is also a photographer and member of the Chicano Art Movement and ASCO (Spanish for nausea).
In her feverish interior scenes, Valdez illustrates dream-like discomforts of home--all skewed angles and supercharged color. "La Noche de la Sandia" finds a room clutched by irrational, diagonal lines and sharp corners, as if seen through a heightened awareness and implying either fear or altered consciousness.
Venezuela-born Luchita Hurtado's paintings are some of the gentlest of the lot. She paints swatches of blue sky, viewable from any angle, as if seen through cave openings. Only floating feathers provide middle ground perspective.
Nancy Romero's work ranges from a depiction of a Taos Pueblo religious ceremony, conspicuous on the museum's back wall, to intimate pieces upstairs. Her sly still life, "Ripe Fruit," finds Our Lady of Guadalupe nestled among fruit on a table--the merging of religious vision and everyday life.
Ann Chamberlain's enigmatic and relatively tiny pieces, in the upstairs gallery, tend to be dwarfed by the larger works in the show, but her art commands close attention. Chamberlain mixes and dislodges archetypes, but in a charmingly naive style that is as whimsical as it is didactic.
"Portland Man," both funky and extravagant-looking in oil and gold leaf on wood, portrays a huge mythical figure towering over Portland--Portlandia meets Godzilla meets Paul Bunyan. Her images, sometimes inspired by film, evoke intentionally ambiguous story lines and the sort of dryly irrational world of surrealist Giorgio De Chirico.
Generally, such is the lay of the artistic land, full of inexplicable--or at least interpretively open-ended--events and scenes. Mystical, in this case, has many different meanings, and somewhere in that matrix of potential meanings lies the pulsing heart of the show.
Suffice to say, a visit to this exhibition is bound to be anything but a passive art-watching experience.
On a local note, Romero is judging a "Ventura County Chicano/Latino Painting Competition" in connection with the exhibit, with an award presentation on Friday at 7 p.m. For information, call 385-8157.
* WHAT: "The Mystical in Art: Chicano/Latino Painting."
* WHEN: Through June 26.
* WHERE: Carnegie Art Museum, 424 S. C St. in Oxnard.
* FYI: 385-8157.