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A feel for activism, a deft touch

September 17, 2004|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Taking a glance at the list of places where Caleb Duarte has shown his work, and the themes of the exhibitions he's been in, it's clear that the young artist from Oakland has a political bent, that he regards his work as an activist practice of sorts. Viewing his first show in L.A., at Gallery 727, it's also clear that he has a tremendous amount to offer, in terms of nuance and skill, toward broadening the category of socially informed artistic practice.

In Duarte's "sculptural paintings," materials speak as potently as images. Duarte draws and paints on pieces of drywall, then sets the panels within driftwood structures that protrude from the wall or construction-type frameworks. The drywall is scuffed and Duarte has stained it with sallow washes of acrylic. Puddles of watery brown and dull gray drip down the surface, mingling with scribbled notations and numbers.

The atmosphere is one of degradation, disregard, randomness and poverty. Within these amorphous settings, Duarte places figures, singly or in small groups. Much of the power of this work derives from the contrast between the integrity of these figures and the shabbiness of their milieu. In "Pisos de Tierra" (Dirt Floors), four young black boys press together tightly in a line, the momentum of their bodies leaning them forward at a slight angle. Duarte draws their skin in rich, full-strength charcoal and paints their shorts and shirts (perhaps a school uniform) in gleaming white. Their earnestness appears to be on a collision course with circumstance. The drywall panel on which they are so vividly drawn also contains snippets of ad copy, a symbol for equal housing opportunity and a sketch of a young black man pumping gas. It forms part of a framed wall of a downscaled house form, whose neatly demarcated floor is made of dirt.

Duarte has a light touch with commentary. In an image of a couple being married, he writes the word "pobre" (poor) across the groom's outlined head, but mostly he makes allusions to social inequities through the structures and forms of his work, through raw or eroded surfaces, skittered with graphic debris. In "Tabla," two young, barefoot children hold hands against a backdrop of distant threats to their innocence and safety: a silhouette of soldiers raising guns, the R-rating designation for a film, another row of soldiers, this time in video-game style pictographs.

Duarte draws with gorgeous facility and with an abiding sense of honesty. He brings to mind graphic artists like Kathe Kollwitz and Charles White, whose attentive renderings of the face and body in themselves express a kind of hope and faith in humanity. Duarte's figures have a purity about them, even as they navigate an impure world. The way they float among the scrap suggests vulnerability, but Duarte invests them -- as if wishing this upon the world -- with awareness of their innate self-worth.

Gallery 727, 727 S. Spring St., (213) 627-9563, through Sept. 30. Closed Sunday and Monday.


Acrylic paint and old lace

Mark Flood has devised a compelling method to make his recent paintings at SolwayJones, one that yields a loaded, unusual kind of beauty. He paints on sections of lace, imprints the shapes onto canvas, then removes the lace. The paintings are monoprints, really, one-of-a-kind impressions on painted grounds. Several aspects of the work are absorbing, though the total effect is somewhat less than the sum of those parts.

The interplay of textures and densities has immediate appeal. The lace impressions appear partially translucent, the pigments aqueous and variegated. The colors seem stained into the canvas. In contrast, the painted grounds they land on are opaque. Although the lace areas evoke dimensionality and sentiment, the grounds, however assertive their hues, are flat and functional, treated like leftover space. Small ridges in the paint, caused by pressing down on the lace, add some textural interest.

Flood, who lives in Houston, tears the lace that he uses, inviting a delicious tension into the works. Preciousness neighbors violation, the meticulous gives way to the hasty. In "Lantern," a lace tablecloth imprint, in soft tones of ivory, rust and mint, appears suspended like a makeshift curtain, hung by its edges. Its middle is ripped away, trailing scraggly threads and leaving a void of graduated blue in the center of the picture.

Their elaborate surface qualities belie the fact that these paintings are born of loss. The lace itself is steeped in nostalgic associations. Its being shredded intensifies those feelings. And however savory the visual results of the process, what's on the surface is a trace, the residue of what is now absent.

SolwayJones, 5377 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 937-7354, through Oct. 9. Closed Sunday and Monday.


Life-size illusionism

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