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Raw Art

Although naive paintings' creators are often unschooled, their natural aesthetics translate into powerful, idiosyncratic views of the Ibero-American world.


FULLERTON — Curator Lynn La Bate defines naive art by checking off what it's not.

"It isn't really primitive art because that's done by pre-industrial cultures," La Bate said. "And it's not folk art because that usually involves a cultural tradition [such as Mexico's Day of the Dead] and its objects are often utilitarian."

Affirmatively speaking, the sometimes misunderstood, art-for-art's-sake medium yields raw personal interpretations of the world, said La Bate, offering the explanation as a guide to a new show at the Fullerton Museum Center.

The paintings are mostly by untrained artists who have a keen natural sense of aesthetics, she said. "The work is not always very sophisticated, but there's definitely a power to it."

"Imagining the World Through Naive Painting: Popular Art From Ibero-America" vivifies that power through 55 works by artists from Spain, Haiti and Cuba as well as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and other Latin American countries.

The nationally traveling exhibit was organized by two nonprofit Washington, D.C., groups to promote culture and international understanding: the Meridian International Center and the Ibero-American Assn. of Cultural Attaches.

"It's a wonderful representation of the diversity of the cultural traditions, history, social structure and landscape of the area," said La Bate, center exhibitions administrator.

A Guatemalan creation myth is brought to life by Salvador Simon Cumez Curruchich, who, as do most naive artists, interprets his surroundings not with traditional painterly perspective but with abundant detail, bright colors and a childlike innocence, La Bate said. The myth holds that, after a flood, monkeys descended from safety atop a tall tree to become the first humans. "El Palo Volador" (1994) portrays a dazzling annual ritual in which celebrants wearing monkey masks "fly" around an 80-foot pole to which they are tethered.

Curruchich chose a bird's-eye view, so "we see the observers, their faces uplifted, and the fliers floating around them. It's a unique and wonderful perspective," La Bate said.


Artistic individuality is exemplified by works depicting Latin America's ubiquitous tile roofs. Jose Antonio Velasquez of Honduras tops the humble homes of a village with earthy brown tiles; Gaby Lopez de Arango of Panama chooses a rich, deep pink.

The many wedding scenes in the show, including "Matrimonio en el Campo" (1996) by Chile's Paz Sarrat, also highlight idiosyncratic vision--the naive artist's chief currency, La Bate said.

"Many of the paintings are so rich with palms and banana trees and the bright, vibrant tropical colors, but [Sarrat's] is done in tans, and people are dressed in city clothes, so it has a very different feel. It's interesting to walk through the exhibit and look at the different ways artists have represented the same image."

Some of the exhibit's artists intentionally veer into such refined stylistic realms as Impressionism and magic realism, La Bate said. She likens "Woman With Fruits," a painting by Argentina's Sonia Etchart, in which a woman is surrounded by equally voluptuous ripe watermelons and jungle-like greenery, to work by Henri Rousseau--probably the world's most famous naive artist.

"It just takes you to a magical world that's in the artist's imagination," La Bate said, adding that paradisaic or quaint tableaux aren't the only visions on view.

In "Petit Dejeuner" (1962), a family stands outside its shack-like abode eating a meager breakfast. It's by Wilson Bigaud, a Haitian artist (represented in the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art) who alludes to the abject poverty rife in his homeland, where the average per-capita income hovers at about $300 a year.

"These people have virtually nothing," La Bate said, "but their will to make art is so strong. They are able to express their cultural and aesthetic values and create such a rich artistic tradition."

* "Imagining the World Through Naive Painting: Popular Art From Ibero-America" continues through May 24 at Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave. Wednesday-Sunday, noon-4 p.m.; Thursday, 6-8 p.m. $2-$3. (714) 738-6545. In conjunction with the exhibit, Mi Guatemala, a seven-member marimba band from Guatemala, will perform at the center April 18. $7. Reservations recommended.

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