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Needed: More heroes to the rescue

Minerva Cuevas' U.S. solo debut gets off to a fine start, but too much real-world analysis and not enough fantasy leave viewers distanced.

September 22, 2006|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Minerva Cuevas' U.S. solo debut makes a great first impression. To walk into the darkened, gymnasium-size gallery at Cal State Los Angeles is to feel as if you have entered a supersize comic strip that has come alive.

You hear the Mexico City-based artist's installation before you see it: a friendly cacophony of voices that recalls a ballroom packed with conference attendees blowing off steam after a long day of lectures, or a big extended family doing its thing at a holiday dinner.

And the visuals are even better. Across the long back wall of the pitch-black gallery, Cuevas has projected a five-channel video that features five self-styled superheroes. All wear homemade costumes or off-the-rack outfits that lack the trademark details of licensed products.

On the left is Salvia, an adorable girl whose furry costume is highlighted with bright green accessories. She resembles a cross between Catwoman, the Green Lantern and Hello Kitty.

Next is Oscar, in Spider-Man garb that would not make it into the movie but would fit right in on Hollywood Boulevard, alongside the other pretenders posing for snapshots with tourists. Then there is Capital, wearing enough pancake makeup to transform his round face into a reasonable rendition of the Joker's leering visage. Liberdade, a cut-rate Wonder Woman in a shiny red convertible, follows. The last is Imperio, a generic Captain America whose cape can't hide his sagging physique beneath his skintight bodysuit.

The five amateur superheroes do not interact with one another. Neither do they perform save-the-world feats that would allow them to exercise their awesome powers. Instead, each takes a break from the labors of being a superhero to address visitors directly.

The effect is funny, strange and engaging. The setup recalls public service announcements by celebrities and athletes, especially when they interrupt their busy schedules to encourage kids to read, stay away from drugs or be environmentally conscious.

Unfortunately, the stories Cuevas' performers enact are too sketchy to be insightful, captivating or memorable. Despite all the nods to pop culture, the installation, titled "The Economy of the Imaginary: Pirates and Heroes," remains portentously entrenched in academic culture, where abstract ideas have more currency than experientially driven narratives, and the goal, in the last analysis, is more analysis, further research, continued study.

As Salvia darts through a park, plays hide-and-seek behind trees and tries to stand on her head, she recites an abbreviated history of Hollywood, with references to Thomas Edison's early inventions, his movie studio's move from New Jersey to Los Angeles (for tax purposes) and forays across the border (to escape censorship). It's the best segment and would benefit from further development.

The monologues by the other characters come off as both too personal and too generic. Oscar bemoans the dearth of fantasy in the working world. Capital whines about economic injustice. Liberdade expounds on the differences between the good old days and the bad new ones. And Imperio uses knowledge as a flimsy veil for defeatist bitterness.

Such cliched introspection reveals too little to keep visitors interested in the characters, who seem to speak words that have been put into their mouths.

The instructive messages may make for effective public service announcements, but they make boring art. Before long, you sense that Cuevas' first love is academic analysis and that the abstract ideas her installation hints at would be better addressed in an essay.

It's a common problem for artists who step back from the world and make works that analyze society. That leaves viewers with nothing to do but analyze the analysis. Rather than get involved in the drama or be consumed by the fiction, we are removed, distant and too passive for meaningful participation.

"The Economy of the Imaginary: Pirates and Heroes" would be far more compelling if it got past its academic fascination with economics, psychology and cultural studies and gave more room to its pirates and heroes. Their stories must be more interesting than the marionette-like roles they are called on to play.

*

`The Economy of the Imaginary: Pirates and Heroes'

Where: Luckman Gallery, Cal State L.A., 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays

Ends: Oct. 14

Price: Free

Contact: (323) 343-6604; www.luckmanarts.org/luckmangallery/

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