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On an Intimate Scale

Latino Museum opens its temporary site with Ramses Noriega works viewing everyday emotion.


The Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture has inaugurated its temporary home on a sunken courtyard of the Los Angeles Mall with an exhibition of 60 works by Ramses Noriega. Including etchings, drawings, watercolors, oils, acrylics, serigraphs and laser prints made between 1963 and 2001, the hit-and-miss survey reveals the Fresno-based artist to be a dedicated dabbler, a casual draftsman whose love of line unifies a modest body of work that is all over the place in terms of style, subject and media.

The title, "Ramses Noriega: From Politics to Spirituality," is misleading. It suggests that Noriega's art developed along thematic lines; but although politics and spirituality are touched on by about a third of the works, handsomely installed in the former offices of the City Ethics Commission, the majority depict figures whose relationship to those topics is peripheral.

As an artist, Noriega appears to be driven by the desire to capture the emotional lives of ordinary folks. His most captivating works fuse elements of portraiture with aspects of landscape, melding inner and outer worlds in evocative blends of abstraction and representation. Line is the glue that holds everything together, tracing jittery gestures or following bold strokes that clearly divide figure from ground.

The two earliest works, from 1963, are conventional portraits that pay homage to Van Gogh and Cezanne. Imagine what the Dutch painter's potato eaters would look like if they were tidied up, given long lashes and big doe-y eyes. This gives you idea of the sweetness at the heart of Noriega's art.

Stark pen-and-ink studies and wiry, acerbic etchings dominate the rest of the works from the 1960s, which often depict surrealistic figures set against bare backgrounds that are as vacant as the void. Picasso's multi-faced femme fatales appear to have influenced Noriega (perhaps a bit too literally), as have Francis Bacon's mutant humanoids (whose flesh seems to be melting) and Wifredo Lam's spiky hybrids (whose animal impulses are barely held in check by their desire to be civilized).

Through the 1960s, Noriega's figures began to merge with their surroundings. "Cain and Abel" (1969) links the battling brothers in a grid of frantic cross-hatching.

In the early '70s, the influence of Pop art gave Noriega's increasingly all-over compositions a cartoonish, jigsaw-puzzle quality. In "Bajito" (1973) and "La Goulie" (1974), people, cars, bulls and musical instruments are entangled in urban settings. It's difficult--and pleasurable--to follow the meandering lines of the postcard-size drawings, figuring out where one object ends and another begins.

Chicano street posters had an even greater impact on Noriega's art, whose graphic punch increased dramatically. Five prints, advertising protests, rallies and concerts, form the show's political component.

In the 1980s, Noriega delivered his best works. Paintings such as "Faces" (1986), "The Soul Carrier" (1986) and "Justice" (1988) use acrylic on canvas to combine the vividness of his early works with the all-over expansiveness of his small drawings from the '70s. Even more striking are his mixed-media drawings. "Lluvias" (1987), "The Professor" (1988) and "San Felipe Fishermen" (1988) create the impression that you're in the presence of aged figures who carry the past with them.

Where Noriega's early drawings and etchings embrace vigorous, sometimes violent gestures, and rely, for their effect, on shocking mutations, more recent pieces appear to have mellowed with age. The crevasses in the wrinkled faces of their figures resemble weathered desert landscapes across which much has been written.

Some of this seasoned ruggedness haunts a handful of his works from the 1990s, but most abandon such hard-won toughness for platitudes about peace, love and contentment. In vapid pastels, like "Praying Hands" (1999), and cliche-ridden laser prints, like "Jesus I Offer You My Heart" (1998) and "God's Love" (1999), Noriega replaces the unsettling anxiousness of his best works with harmonious resolution so bland it's toothless.

The religious or spiritual subject matter is not the problem. The way Noriega has pictured it is. Compare "Adam" (1993) and "From Communism to Jesus" (1998). Both page-size images depict a solitary figure reading a book. The first shows a man crouched on the ground. The self-doubt that riddles his anxious, Cubist-inspired face is nowhere to be found in the laser-printed pastel, in which a man in a baseball cap reads a book from which light spills in abundance.

"Adam" embodies uncertainty; you feel it in your bones. In contrast, its counterpart merely illustrates the idea of happiness. Visually, "From Communism to Jesus" lacks the impact of the earlier work. Its contentment is too self-satisfied to be contagious.

But all is not lost. In "Fishermen and Fish" (1996) and "El Southwest" (1999), Noriega flaunts his skills as a draftsman, depicting grizzled old-timers and a mythical satyr, all of whom appear to be trapped in a landscape that is anything but alien.


"Ramses Noriega: From Politics to Spirituality," Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, 201 N. Los Angeles St., downtown L.A., (213) 626-7600, through Nov. 30. Closed Sundays. Free admission.

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