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Reflecting the street

Even as his work takes flight, Mario Ybarra Jr. keeps his feet planted in the neighborhoods he knows.

September 03, 2006|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

YOU might not guess it to watch Mario Ybarra Jr. sweating through the afternoon at the New Chinatown Barbershop, his tiny, un-air-conditioned gallery with its mismatched linoleum tile and dusty packets of prisoner art, but the 32-year-old artist from L.A.'s harbor region is rounding the corner on an exceptionally good year.

Seven miles west, Ybarra's "Belmont Ruins" tribute to graffiti artists can be seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "Consider This ... " show (through Jan. 15 at LACMA West). On Friday, he'll stage an "intervention" at London's Serpentine Gallery, where he's formed an ad hoc bird-watching club to educate the public about Hyde Park's nonnative parakeet population as a metaphor for immigrant cultures. By October, he needs to finish paintings for the Orange County Museum of Art's "2006 California Biennial."

And at Ybarra's bakery-turned-studio in downtown Wilmington, a 6-foot-tall cardboard cutout of Chewbacca awaits. The "Star Wars" creature is inspiration, along with Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, for the "Brown and Proud" mural he'll be painting at the Institute of Contemporary Arts for that London museum's "Alien Nation" exhibition in December.

Fueled by a diet cola and dressed in an oversized T-shirt and baggy shorts, Ybarra, resting on an upended plastic bucket, acknowledges that he's still getting used to the art world's formal embrace.

"Things have kind of shifted for me now, in that I have become official in a way, like I have a title or whatever," he says. That title would be Artist, and though he's shown work over the last five years at a dozen smaller venues, Ybarra credits the two-year "Belmont Ruins" project as his decisive proving ground.

"I worked with LACMA administration, the curator of objects, the audio-video guys, the union of painters, the union of builders, the audience, the panel discussions," he says. "I learned from the senior artists in the show about how to navigate an institution, and now I feel like the museum is my arena. It is kind of a weird position for me, trying to hold on to some nostalgic sense of being on the street by doing a project like 'Belmont Ruins,' because the truth is I love the street."

Two tattooed twentysomething artists knock on the gallery door. Barbershop is between shows and is locked, but Ybarra lets them in and listens patiently for 10 minutes as they discuss their own upcoming works. He hands out a few gallery postcards, urges his visitors to check back in at the 930 N. Hill St. storefront in a few weeks and sends them on their way. Ybarra may be traveling in some lofty institutional circles these days, but he's still got the common touch and, as evidenced by "Belmont Ruins," he wouldn't want it any other way.

The LACMA installation pays tribute to a now-bulldozed vacant lot just west of the 110 Freeway near 1st Street that for two decades served as a near-legendary destination for graffiti taggers. Ybarra remembers his first visit to the site when he was 16. "Ten of us piled into the back of my friend's truck and drove all the way from the harbor area to Belmont Tunnel. When we got there, it seemed like a flashback in time where you're looking at some Mesoamerican temple underneath the skyline of Los Angeles, with the graffiti and the guys playing pelota. We took pictures of it like we were in front of the Eiffel Tower or Mt. Rushmore."

Ybarra mimics the site's tunnel opening with a graffiti-covered cave-like structure equipped with marking pens so visitors can draw on the walls. A video monitor loops a documentary on Belmont Park's history. A Maya sculpture from the museum's antiquities collection depicts miniature clay figures immersed in a pre-Columbian ballgame that predates by two millenniums the pelota played in Belmont Park. Glass vitrines display formally labeled spray-paint cans and nozzle caps excavated by Ybarra from the "ruins," along with Red Car ticket stubs from the downtown-to-Silver Lake rail line, served by the tunnel, which shut down in 1955.


Mountains out of molehills

BARBARA KRUGER, the conceptual artist who designed "Consider This

In 2002, after earning a bachelor's in fine art from Otis College of Art and Design and a master's in fine art from UC Irvine, Ybarra joined classmate Juan Capistran to form Slanguage, a workshop aimed at developing young Latino talent. Early this year, to extend that effort, Ybarra and his wife, Karla B. Diaz, opened Barbershop, which recently hosted an "Insider Art" exhibition of drawings produced by inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison.

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