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Art & Architecture

These Artists Don't Even Try to Paint Within the Borders

An exhibition of works from Tijuana sets out to show the influences of living in a hybrid zone between cultures.

October 21, 2001|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

The border between the U.S. and Mexico is a line on a map, a state of mind and a cultural landscape. All those elements and more are part of an exhibition of nine young artists from Tijuana opening Friday at the Luckman Gallery at Cal State Los Angeles.

"PinturaFresca" (Wet Paint) is billed as a paintings show, but these artists are working and reworking stretched canvas with dense layers of paint, adding bits from fabric to buttons to manufacturing detritus. There is hardly a straightforward portrait or landscape among them. Instead, if there is portrait, it might be a generic or a psychological one--as in the works of Tania Candiani or Pablo Llana; if there is landscape, it is conceptual more than physical--as in the works of Jaime Ruiz Otis and Daniel Ruanova. The other artists in this show, organized by artist and teacher Luis Ituarte, a third-generation Tijuana native now living part time in Los Angeles, are Mely Barragan, Enrique Ciapara, Hugo Crosthwaite, Alejandro Martinez-Pena and Robert Romero.

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"It grew very fast and in a very chaotic way," says Ituarte of Tijuana. He points out that when he was born, in 1943, the town had a population of 17,000; now it's 1.2 million. People from all over Mexico "came awaiting an opportunity to come across the border or to have a life more like the one we have here in the United States."

Four years ago, Ituarte became intrigued by a story in The Times, "Emergence of a Hybrid Culture," by Anne-Marie O'Connor. That piece described the phenomenon of a specific borderland culture arising from an increasingly educated, affluent society in Tijuana.

After years of absence, Ituarte began visiting his hometown again, and at the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, where he worked, he proposed a Tijuana-Los Angeles cultural exchange program, Poets for Painters. In the 2000-01 fiscal year, the department, in conjunction with Tijuana's Instituto Municipal de Arte y Cultura, sent L.A. artists to exhibit in Tijuana and brought poets to L.A. This year, the exchange will go the other direction.

Ituarte selected the nine Mexican artists last year, inviting them to a weeklong retreat at Dorland Arts Colony in Temecula to ask them "to start realizing what parts of what they do are relevant to the culture of Tijuana because we wanted to do a show in the context of them as Tijuana artists."

The artists are young, ranging from 20 to early 30s, and largely self-taught, because there had been no art academy in the city. (The first one opened just last month, as part of the new University of the Arts of the Northwest.) As Crosthwaite, 30, says, speaking by telephone from Tijuana, "I was always interested in figurative drawing, and I just began drawing--copying comic books, art books, Renaissance artists." Others have learned the same way--by seeing art in publications and in museums, by copying, by experimenting.

Crosthwaite and Ruanova said the modern art scene in Tijuana is not big but thriving. "Usually every Friday there's an art opening somewhere, and we see each other there," Crosthwaite said. So it's a tight community? "Yes," Ruanova says, laughing, "it's too tight." In fact, he will be marrying another artist in the show, Barragan, next spring.

"We thought it was such a great idea," says Julie Joyce, director of the Luckman Gallery, which is another partner in the exchange program, "not just because of the show itself, but also [because] it fit in with some of the other things we were planning at the time."

"PinturaFresca" will culminate a month of talks, film and video screenings, and performances on Latino arts at Cal State L.A.; its opening coincides with a Latin American Composers Festival at the Luckman Theatre, Saturday and next Sunday.

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While these works aren't traditional, one might find a strong trace of traditional concerns in Crosthwaite's large-scale drawings--both in terms of theme and style. Because of its size, just the first and the center sections of his nine-part "Tablets of a Novena" are included in the exhibition. In the series, human nudes swirl through a dark ether, undergoing judgment as posited by Catholic doctrine.

"The Banishment," included here, shows a man and a woman being propelled through the murky darkness from the upper left corner, where an impish figure seems to be working a pulley. Far below them is Earth, represented by the grim facade of a tenement building. "It relates to banishment from paradise, the first fall," Crosthwaite explains. "The other panels go through judgment, through purgatory, then in the end there is another banishment."

Which is to say, the cycle starts all over again. "My inspiration for this was a version of 'The Divine Comedy' done by Gustave Dore," he says. Since he cannot afford models for his time-consuming drawings on board, he draws from posed photos of friends and clippings from fashion magazines.

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