Pacific Standard Time/LA/LA (Los Angeles, Latin America) is the second installment of a widespread series of exhibitions sponsored by The Getty. This incarnation involves over 70 institutions (art galleries, museums, and other cultural venues) from all over Southern California, including Palm Springs, to showcase Chicano and Latino art — ancient through contemporary.
As part of PST/LA/LA, The Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art (LACMA) shows a survey of painting from the prolific and prodigiously gifted Carlos Almaraz, who died too young of AIDS in 1989. From 1973-83, Almaraz was part of a Chicano (though that term was new) Collective, called Los Four, which included Frank Romero, Gilbert Magu Lujan, and Roberto de la Rocha. They worked together, painted and sculpted many of the same images (cars, cacti, dogs, chairs, flames) as they developed a Chicano lexicon of imagery. They are all being recognized anew. Frank Romero just had an outstanding retrospective at MOLAA last spring and Gilbert Magu Lujan will have a huge retrospective (over 200 works) at UCI this fall. The fourth member, Roberto de la Rocha, unfortunately destroyed all his works, went into seclusion for 20 years and is just now rejoining the Los Angeles artistic community.
Playing With Fire is the apt title of this exhibition of Almaraz’s paintings, drawings, prints and his diaristic notebooks. Almaraz drew constantly and his notebooks are filled with his dream life, his poetry, philosophical ruminations and sketches for paintings. An entire room in this exhibition is given over to his notebooks. In a sketch book entry dated March 4, 1989, Almaraz wrote this: “Art is a record, a document, that you leave behind showing what you saw and felt when you were alive, that’s all.” Almaraz was known to have had a near death experience when he went to New York in the late sixties. These notebooks also discuss and highlight the negative effect on his life and work as a result of the sexual abuse he suffered as a child from both an uncle and a Catholic priest. It is a somber room that explains the demons (among them his bi-sexuality and religious notions of sin) that he grappled with his whole life.
The LACMA show is installed thematically, not chronologically, and the first room is filled with large, frenetic paintings from 1984-9. Although I am very familiar with Almaraz’s work, I had not seen these before. They are difficult paintings to enjoy as they are so dense and chaotic. “The Eternal City,” (oil on canvas, 1986) is a case in point. In the swirl of imagery, two white-robed clerics are centrally located and in intimate conversation, face to face. Their long pointed caps, exaggerated and elongated, nearly become dunce caps or party caps. The crowded city is tilting inward, amongst angels who seem shot out of a cannon. Populated with black cats and circus ring masters, this jam-packed, thickly encrusted painting is held together by the scaffold of an implicit grid underneath (a nod, perhaps, to Almaraz’s early days in NY when the minimalist grid ruled the art world). Here he paints The Eternal City of Rome as a cacophony of color with his trademark vigorous brushwork and some enigmatic symbolic imagery – all scrawled freely over a dark charcoal background. It is an almost stultifying, claustrophobic painting of a world out of balance and about to collapse. There is no breathing room here. Considering his abuse at the hands of a trusted clergy member, this is probably an accurate portrayal of his inner struggle to come to terms with the Catholic notions of sin and the sinner.
In 1988, a year before his untimely death, he painted “School Days” (oil on canvas) that looks (gasp) almost like a painting on velvet as the bright nearly neon yellows, pinks, violets and oranges glow against the black background. At first glance, one sees rows of blocky buildings, a small bridge over water (a nod to Echo Park Lake and the bridges in Edvard Munch’s pre-breakdown paintings) and then stylized line profiles emerge. Those on the right side of the painting are facing left and the reverse is true on the left. It is like an Escher figure-ground reversal that is barely visible alongside a row of child-like volcanoes spewing flames (a great metaphor for hidden or repressed feelings long ignored erupting into angry flames). There are also bunnies, perhaps hinting at magic realism. The whole painting looks like an ancient stele written in code, and crossed with a Hundertwasser painting.
The 1988 painting entitled “California Native” (oil on canvas), one of the many pieces Cheech Marin lent to the show, continues this sense of unease – not strange when you realize Almaraz must have been quite ill by then. Again the picture plane from the top to the bottom is crammed with people, animals and mysterious watchful figures. The composition seems to be affected by centrifugal force, with the right side pulled to the right and the left side pulled to the left, leaving the center to seemingly slide and/or implode. To the left are two nude brown-skinned figures (a virtual Adam and Eve) painted in a way that suggests Gauguin’s use of color and Tahitian subject matter. To the right, a farmer holding a rooster is painted with sectional lines that delineate the form and remind of both Almaraz’s own pastel drawings and also Degas’ pastels. Once more, there is a bridge (over troubled waters?) motif as the water slides perilously towards a house and foliage fostering a sense of dread. A mysterious dark figure, simplified like Egyptian art, with the side eye facing us, impassively looks out over the whole hallucinogenic image.
“The Two Chairs” (1986, oil on canvas) is a feverish, almost hellish image with figures, houses and animals swirling around two yellow chairs, one behind the other. Perhaps these chairs are a stand–in for the artist and his painter wife, Elsa. They are the only truly solid, optimistic, non-disintegrating entities in this whirling dervish of a painting.
After the emotional intensity of the works in the first room, Almaraz’s iconic car crash paintings ironically seem like a relief, as they are somewhat removed and stylized. The danger here is external not internal. “Longo Crash” (1982, acrylic on canvas) is indicative of many of this particular series. They are all very horizontal, small to medium sized paintings. Although the subject should or could be horrifying – a multiple car crash with all vehicles in flames – it is strangely beautiful and restrained. There is a gorgeous phthalo blue cloudless LA sky, over the highly abstracted pinkish freeway. Underneath the salmon-colored freeway are luscious stripes of violet and cool gray, representing the concrete posts holding the freeway up. It is almost peaceful as the cars explode into a profusion of abstract-expressionist marks and active brushstrokes. The place of flames and fire in Almaraz’s work range from burning cars to burning suburban houses to erupting volcanos. Each of these is seen from a distance-almost in a dreamlike trance.
As the viewer wanders from room to room, the work heads back in time to the early nineteen-seventies after Almaraz has returned from New York and recovered from his near fatal experience. There is a series of ink and watercolor homoerotic line drawings from 1972 and from Elsa Flores Almaraz’s own private collection, that are just stunning. One is “Siesta” and the other is “Frenzied Fantasies.” They are reminiscent of Picasso’s etchings in their masterful single line renditions of tangled nude bodies before or after sex: however, unlike the Picasso erotic etchings, the male nudes here (though seemingly nonchalant) are haunted by teasing spirits, tricksters and other scary figments of the artist’s psyche. The conflict and pain is visceral but oh so sweetly rendered.
Almaraz’s early paintings are filled with mysterious and spiritual beings, such as women who are half-horse, half-human or rabbits whose shadow is in the moon. Like the literary Latin American movement called magic realism, there is a tantalizing brew of the real, the imagined, the invented and the dreamed in all of his work. Although Almaraz came of age with the Chicano movement, and although he and his comrades painted similar motifs, Almaraz’s work was always darker. Even his iconic four-part image of Echo Park series painted in 1982 seems like a feverish dream or hallucination. The red of the sunset almost look like flames licking the bark of the palm trees.
This is a profoundly moving exhibit, and so very personal. At the Craig Krull Gallery last week, as part of PST/LA/LA, Elsa Flores Almaraz talked about the small, intimate painting show at the gallery. Works by both Elsa and Carlos include their small, domestic pieces and highlights the cross-pollination of their ideas and techniques. Carlos, ever the colorist, influenced her color palette and she (who used encaustic to thicken her paint) influenced his later use of thickly encrusted oil paint. Elsa Flores Almaraz pointed out that had Carlos lived another two years, the HIV cocktail might very well have saved his life. One cannot help but feel sad about this masterful artist who died too young. His epitaph read: “Here lies a chap quick as a cat and short one life.”
Details of Echo Park Bridge at Night
Nancy Kay Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.