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Mixed media, mixed race

June 27, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Mixed media, the term for art that refuses formal aesthetic purity by drawing upon whatever combination of materials an artist decides might be useful, is given a wickedly comic spin in a recent body of work by Lezley Saar. Her subject matter does the trick.

Replace "mixed media" with "mulatto," and the nature of individual human identity is transformed from a categorical state of being into something far more pertinent: a lively, pungent predicament. "Mulatto Nation," Saar's third and strongest solo show at Jan Baum Gallery, is history rewritten as a Swiftian satire. Neither black nor white is ever pristine in this tale, and everyone is, quite literally, soiled.

Take the acid diorama that commemorates a fictionalized textbook event from the nation's founding, "The Mulattoville Tea Party," in which "the Lilyskins" refused to pay unfair taxes on tar imposed by the United States. Saar has scattered a dozen white baby dolls across a sandy field, where they romp and splash in oozing puddles of pitch. In their struggle for economic liberation, the Lilyskins become tar babies -- figures common in African-derived tales, where wax or rubber lures are used to trap a rascal, yet characters also twisted into the perverse guise of a racial slur. The audience for "The Mulattoville Tea Party" slyly embodies the unwitting rapscallion, who will inevitably get entangled in the sticky goo of racial politics.

In addition to three dioramas, the show includes collages made with antiquarian books as their principal support. Saar has long made art from books, and her tar-baby diorama evokes literary precedents as diverse as Joel Chandler Harris and Toni Morrison. "Tale of the Tragic Mulatto" depicts a disturbing family genealogy painted on a large field of texts affixed together. Nearby, a single painted book cover shows the wintry cave where lurks that freakish eight-legged creature of universal pity, "The White Sheep of the Family." As a whole, "Mulatto Nation" is a deft metaphor for compelling art, which always courts ambiguity and complexity.

The weak link in the show is "The Mulatto Nation Gift Shop," a store open for business in the last room. The exhibition originated (in a larger version) at Swarthmore College's List Gallery, so the shift in context from museum to commercial space may have undercut its impact. It's now a store within a store.

Amid the coffee mugs, zebra-patterned accessories and other jokey knickknacks, a witty bumper sticker declares that "Mulattos are always half right." It certainly hits the nail on the head. But the souvenirs are one-dimensional next to biting works of art, such as a group of five large, lavish fabric banners that celebrate Mulattoville's founding fathers and mothers. The revered ancestors range from Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln's entrepreneurial seamstress and a former slave, to sexy British pop star Tom Jones, whose tight "Welsh Afro" hair is a thing of wonder. In a gallery already filled with gifts for sale, the gift shop feels redundant.

Jan Baum Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., (323) 932-0170, through June 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


A subcontinent's fantasy world

Bollywood, like Hollywood, isn't just a geographical locale but an entire cultural apparatus. India's extravagant movie industry may be centered in Bombay, but it lives and breathes in the imaginative life of the country's huge populace.

Israeli photojournalist Jonathan Torgovnik spent five years taking pictures of both the producers and consumers of Bollywood's lavish romances. Thirty-eight of those photographs are at Stephen Cohen Gallery, in an exhibition that coincides with the publication of Torgovnik's handsome book "Bollywood Dreams" (Phaidon Press). The subject is far from a novelty today, but the photographer's images are rarely stale. Most record aspects of a mass aesthetic created within the rich fantasy life of an otherwise often poverty-stricken people, and mostly they do so without resorting to familiar pop cliches.

One image shot from above shows a billboard panel spread out on the ground, still in production at a Bombay printing house. The aerial vantage gives you an elevated perspective that's as godly and omniscient as the cinema deities portrayed in the billboard below -- an astonishingly gorgeous woman swooning in the arms of an impossibly handsome man. The monumental picture is set on broken concrete, surrounded by seemingly indifferent workers and with a parallel line of laundry hanging nearby. At the center of the mundane pictorial world, the sleek perfection of the fantasy couple beats like a romantic heart.

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