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Art & Architecture

The Story of a City and a Life

In a rare solo gallery show, Frank Romero records personal and L.A. history in his vivid images

July 28, 2002|SCARLET CHENG

An elevated freeway cuts through the middle of a vivid downtown scene, a Los Angeles of a dozen skyscrapers and old buildings throwing bright red shadows across canary yellow city blocks. There are the old and the new, the present and the past all jumbled together, in Frank Romero's fanciful signature style.

It's not exactly accurate, but it's all recognizable and it's the story of Romero's--and L.A.'s--life. In the upper left of his painting "Downtown," there are Dodger Stadium and City Hall, and in the upper right, the three spiraling cones of Watts Towers.

"I single-handedly saved the towers in '59," Romero smilingly boasts, half-serious, half-exaggerating, as he stands in the creative sprawl of his 5,000-square-foot studio just north of downtown. He likes to tell stories.

"I was the teenage kid hired to collect money from people coming by," he begins, "because they were trying to tear them down--and I helped collect the money to run the tests." The tests determined that the towers were structurally sound.

These days Romero commutes from his home in Westwood, through downtown, to reach his studio off the 5 Freeway, so the painting is a kind of narrative of his commute. He points to the cartoonish pickup truck barreling down a remarkably empty freeway. "This is my off-white Chevy truck."

Then there are the less-familiar places. "I grew up in Boyle Heights," Romero says of an area in the painting's background. "This is the Breed Street Shul. It's just a little teeny building in the back. It wouldn't mean anything to anyone but me."

Then he jumps back 50 years, pointing to a trolley about to run beneath that jam-less freeway. "That's the P car going down 1st Street," he says. "I took the P car to go to the movies, and the R car down Whittier Boulevard to go to the Otis Art Institute when I was 16."

Romero's "Downtown," plus a few dozen other recent works, is on view in a rare solo gallery show for Romero, at the DoubleVision Gallery--rare because Romero has avoided commercial galleries, or perhaps they have avoided him.

However, his works have recently been seen in group museum shows. He received a 2002 City of Los Angeles Individual Artist Fellowship ($10,000 to create new work), and his large-scale diptych "Fullerton" was in the C.O.L.A. show that just closed at the Japanese American National Museum. One of his best-known paintings, "The Death of Ruben Salazar" (1986), depicting the journalist's accidental death when a tear-gas canister hit him in a 1970 incident, is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's touring "Arte Latino" exhibition.

"I know he hasn't really exhibited in a commercial gallery in many years," says Mingfei Gao, director of DoubleVision. They met because of proximity (her gallery is next door to the Craft and Folk Art Museum, where he is a board member) and hit it off. The show was her suggestion. "I wanted people to see his more recent works," she says. "As he's gotten older, there's an ease in his paintings; they're rather playful."

When asked why he isn't shown regularly in local galleries, the artist says he's just been too busy--he teaches; he has been working on several murals; he does his artwork. Also, he observes, "it's so hard to get a good dealer--they don't really look after the artists, artists are at the bottom of the food chain."

"I've been painting since I was 5," Romero says. "I'm 61 today." A robust man with a full white beard and a ringing laugh, Romero launches into one anecdote after another about friends, family or bits of social and cultural lore, and how his work relates to it all. He also admits to riding the roller coaster of fame. "I've been around so long, I've been famous five or six times," he quips.

As a teenager in the 1950s, he got a PTA scholarship to attend Otis Art Institute, and he went in the evenings, on weekends and during the summer. That was when Millard Sheets was the director and attracted a slew of exciting artists as teachers. "I was privileged to be there," Romero says. "That was the art school to be at in those days."

Later, he attended Cal State L.A., worked as a graphics designer in the office of Charles Eames and, eventually, at the encouragement of his friend painter Carlos Almaraz, spent a year in New York. But it was a financial struggle and, he says, "I missed my car!"

Returning to Los Angeles in 1969, Romero met the Chicano movement head on. "The truth is, I'm fluent in English, I'm not fluent in Spanish," he says. "But I still went home and ate menudo--but I grew up in Boyle Heights, so I also ate sushi." That was because there was a sizable Japanese American community in his neighborhood.

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