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Welcome to Dr. Estrada's Odd Island

It's not Dr. Moreau or Dr. Frankenstein. It is art.

January 04, 1998|Hunter Drohojowska Philp | Hunter Drohojowska Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Victor Estrada stands in the garage of his modest Sunland house, hands on hips, and stares at a chicken-wire armature mounted on a welded metal pedestal. Soon, he will cover this amorphous shape with brightly colored resin to execute one of his strangely deformed sculptures. The artist, 41, is completing a body of work for his exhibition opening Saturday at the Shoshana Wayne Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica.

Right now, the human-scale armature looks as though it could become a fish, a bird or an extraterrestrial. In his gravelly voice, Estrada explains, "It's a form that will give way to different kinds of shapes and give a sense that it's a breathing, living thing." Scattered on various small tables are fake eyeballs, ears and teeth, rather unnerving clues as to the future of this and other monsters in the making. "The eyeballs give them a sense of life," he adds. "Plus, it has to do with the idea of looking, of vision. That's how we come to know the world."

Estrada could be called the Dr. Frankenstein of the art world, working quietly in his crowded garage, experimenting with the invention of new life forms. He even has a small streak of white running through the front of his dark hair--a homage to Frankenstein's bride? Indeed, one of his recent sculptures showed a figure painted entirely black but for a scarlet and erect appendage from which a hose was connected to a three-eyed, three-legged hybrid, possibly a cross between a poodle and a frog.

"I see shapes. I have to make them simple to make since they come out of my chaotic inner world," the artist says.

Although Estrada is known for larger-than-life sculptures and installations, the 10 pieces for his upcoming show are smaller, as they were for his 1996 show at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York. In addition, on the walls of his garage hang dozens of runny, melting, cartoon-like paintings that look like two-dimensional versions of his sculptures.

"People think of me as a sculptor, but I think of myself as a painter because of my use of color," he says. "I don't have a sculptor's respect for materials as a whole. I make objects of reasonable scale and physical, three-dimensional presence in space. But in terms of what goes on top of them, I think of them as canvases with a lot of stuff accumulating on the surface like a skin. I'm not making objects that are about representation as such."

He continues: "I combine the sculptural and painterly process as I work through the thinking involved. I had always been a painter until I went to art school. There, I was anxious because I felt I could not create enough density in the paintings. I wouldn't tweak them so they would work as both an image and a thing.

"It's a very raw, low-tech way of working. I want to have my hands involved. I don't want to farm it out. It's my particular way of working since I don't have a linear process."

By 1988, Estrada had earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts from Art Center in Pasadena and studied with established artists such as Mike Kelly, Sabina Ott and Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe. After being included in a few group exhibitions locally, Estrada was one of a handful of newcomers selected for "Helter Skelter," the highly publicized 1992 exhibition of Los Angeles art curated by Museum of Contemporary Art Chief Curator Paul Schimmel for MOCA's Temporary Contemporary space.

Estrada's 30-foot-long urethane-foam sculpture "Baby/Baby" looked like Siamese twins linked at midpoint by a giant phallus and was mentioned favorably in nearly every review of the otherwise controversial show. Even Time magazine's conservative critic Robert Hughes called it "authentic." In fact, the sculpture garnered so much attention that critics overlooked Estrada's bright pink and purple paintings melding big-eyed girls and psychedelic patterns with fragments of sentimental text in Spanish.

"'I still have those paintings," the artist says with a sigh. "I don't think people were ready for them. My desire is to deform the painting surface. I feel anxious about things being left out, both formally and psychologically." Disturbing protuberances extended from the canvas, and eventually these appendages mutated off the wall to become the sculptures.

Estrada believes that his art reflects the changing social landscape of Los Angeles. Born and raised in Burbank, he has watched neighborhoods and attitudes change.

"Change is not controlled here. Anxiety about that change is reflected in my work," he says.

Although Estrada didn't settle on art as a career until he was in his late 20s, even in the third grade, as he was painting a picture of a landscape, he realized that "the activity worked the way my mind worked. Later, I saw Giotto's images in art history books and it brought my mind back to that painting."

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