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BOYLE HEIGHTS : Artist Brushes Up on His Heritage

June 04, 1995|JOHN CANALIS

Boyle Heights artist Richard Beltran paints a world where the chaos of the city easily meshes with the serenity of the desert.

His contrasting but compatible mixed-media images, on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through June 29, come from an artist whose heart and paintbrush belong to two dissimilar places: East Los Angeles and the New Mexico desert.

"I get a kick out of that kind of juxtaposition," said Beltran, 34.

Indeed, the subtle colors and mystical images in Beltran's presentations blend well, challenging the viewer to search for contrast. This is not an in-your-face style of painting.

In the dreamy "Duel," named for the yearning Beltran feels for both the desert and city, a palm tree flanked by utility wires represents East Los Angeles while a tall desert cactus recalls his frequent trips to the Southwest.

In the work's midsection, yellow watercolor cutouts show the pollen used in an Apache fertility ceremony while orange pieces symbolize glowing amber from an Independence Day fireworks display, quietly revealing the difference between two separate but distinctly American celebrations.

Beltran's work is displayed in the museum's Art Rental and Sales Gallery, a space that shows and sells work by promising but unknown artists. Many artists apply for gallery space, museum officials said, but few are accepted.

"We give them a helping hand," said Sally Bickerton, coordinator of the 25-year-old program. Beltran's work has also appeared in galleries throughout the Los Angeles area, Phoenix, San Diego and Chicago.

Bickerton said the gallery receives 25 to 30 applications a week, with the work selected by a committee.

Lynne Hiller, a member of the Sales and Rental Gallery selection committee, said she met Beltran at a Los Angeles restaurant where he was displaying his work and encouraged him to apply for the county program.

"The work was fabulous," Hiller said.

She said she was enchanted with the Native American themes and Beltran's professionalism. But she offered no guarantee that he would be chosen; the committee is selective, she said.

"After all, they are at LACMA," Hiller said. "This is not amateur night."

Unable to afford the luxury of painting full-time, Beltran works as a bookkeeper at the county Hall of Administration in parking services. Though he started in the department 10 years ago painting signs, his current duties include monitoring receipts.

Cathe York, who works with Beltran, said seeing his paintings in the county museum is impressive and thrilling. "I know his work has a lot of passion in it, work that's inspired by his personal life."

Beltran has taken several art courses at local community colleges "to get the skills to do what I wanted to do."

He has lived in the same home his entire life, a California bungalow that has been in the family for four generations. The home, which is about 75 years old, represents his roots, a place where customs and tradition were passed along, Beltran said.

"I was steeped in family history."

Indeed, the views from his home and references to older generations often show up in his work.

In "Reality Aside," a wash bucket spotted in a neighbor's yard shows how older immigrants stick to the traditional ways of doing chores even though they live in a city of modern conveniences.

"It's a reference to a simpler time and people from simpler times," Beltran said. "They may have a brand new Kenmore washing machine on the back porch but they hang on to the old bucket."

The absurd and unusual also are common themes in Beltran's work. "For Sarah," painted in homage to a late aunt, shows a snarling red jaguar holding a frosted cake in it's paws, much like a waiter carrying a tray. A pair of black high heels stand atop the cake.

The large jungle cat, Beltran explains, is a symbol of protection and strength that guards his aunt in the afterlife. The cake is a tribute to the relative's sweet tooth, while the shoes represent her love of dancing.

The New Mexico influence comes from annual visits to the Southwest, where Beltran has viewed several Native American dance ceremonies. He considers New Mexico a spiritual home, a place where indigenous tribes still practice sacred rituals and live with respect for land and animals.

But his Latino roots in Boyle Heights are just as dear. Beltran hopes his work will inspire younger people to investigate and treasure their heritage.

"I have the idea that a lot of young Latinos are not totally in touch with their culture," he said. "I want to teach them appreciation for their own culture, and I want to inspire strength in them."

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