By Margaret Regan
IN MARGARET GARCIA'S painterly vision of East Los Angeles, the Chicano barrio of the City of the Angels, the streets may be mean but they're sacred. The radiant yellow building of El Progreso Auto Parts lights up a purple night sky. The window of Los Cinco Puntos, maybe a bar, maybe a disco, opens wide to reveal the souls inside. Tiny yellow bungalows bloom like brave flowers amid the chain-link fences and metal gates locked to keep out danger. In her deft little oils on canvas, Garcia evokes these places of her childhood, places she says now have "mystic connotations."
People, Places, Influences is the name Garcia has given to her show at José Galvez Gallery. Her 18 works, divided between oils and silkscreen monoprints, are portraits of Chicanos known and unknown to the outside world, architectural views and spiritual homages to the traditions that have shaped her vision.
The artist grew up in the barrio and later picked up her MFA at the University of Southern California. But her work underlines her continuing connection to her urban Chicano roots and to the Mexican arts that are so often such an integral part of a Chicano artistic identity. The five small oils in the places series, all engagingly painted, show a pride in the barrio homeplace. A couple of supple monoprints celebrate the colors and rhythms of Mexican traditional dance. A half dozen oils are portraits of Chicano men, men ranging from glaring street tough to bespectacled intellectual to sainted political activist.
These portraits are reminiscent of Chicano political art of a few decades back. By depicting indiduals in all their variety, Garcia is trying to overturn stereotypes and give a little glory to the barrio men who meet with such contempt in the wider culture. If they're not all that original, they have been painted in a vigorous Expressionist style and colored in the outrageous hues of the Fauves or of Mexican folk art.
"Jose Luis Lopez" is the tough guy, a man with an angry glare, an angular jaw and a metal cross dangling out of his ear. Garcia has cropped this portrait closely and you can almost feel the man's rage itching to break out. But Garcia also paints the men who have gone against type, such as "Danny," the noted Chicano actor Danny de la Paz. Garcia has placed him half in and half out of his house, perhaps to suggest the difficulty of living in both the Anglo and Chicano worlds. His face is a blaze of broad yellow and red brushstrokes, which reverberate against the bright red of his baseball cap, his purple jacket and the deep blue sky outside. "Elias Nahmias," another close-cropped portrait in yellows and gray-violet, is a painting of a Chicano filmmaker.
Garcia's picture of Cesar Chavez, the United Farmworkers founder who died two years ago, comes closest to the political hagiography so characteristic of the activist '60s and '70s. Painted on a large piece of unstretched canvas, Chavez's fine face is pictured against an idyllic landscape of purple mountains and green fields. This painting is traveling pretty close to outright sentimentality.
More interesting are the pictures that make use of Latin magical realism and the folk religions of Mexico and the barrio. Garcia has reworked these forms effectively for psychological explorations. "Rumors of Intended Suicide" is a smooth, glossy painting on tin, in the tradition of Mexican religious retablos. These ubiquitous pieces of folk art were painted to commemorate important family events or to give thanks to God or the saints for miracles worked and favors granted.
Garcia's update is more ambiguous than those. Her modern retablo setting is a room painted bright blue and green, illuminated by the blue light of the television. The possible suicide victim is a woman prostate on a glowing pink and maroon bed. Lurking behind the bedroom door is an angel who may or may not have the power to save her. It could be that the television's light nowadays is stronger than the angel's.
Garcia has painted a Chicana woman's face onto another piece of tin, cut into the rounded arch of a saint's shrine. Called "Santa Negra"--Saint Black Woman--this saint is both holy and sexy. The woman's head, shoulders and breasts are sensuously painted in red and brown and outlined in purple and blue; rays of grace flash out from her body into the surround of shiny gold. It's a painting, Garcia writes, about her "quest for my spiritual place."
This saint's opposite number appears in the playful "My Ego Is My Demon." Like Gronk, a wildly successful East Los Angeles Chicano artist whose mid-career retrospective is now at the Tucson Museum of Art, Garcia enjoys using the diablo of Mexican folk art. The delicious red devil in this monoprint has taken the form of a mask, which a woman has just removed from her face. A fauvist delight in yellow, purple, red and teal, this piece suggests that our rambunctious inner demons are tough opponents for any angels who might be hovering helpfully above the city streets.
Margaret Garcia: People, Places, Influences continues through the evening of May 20 at José Galvez Gallery, 743 N. Fourth Ave. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, and from 7 to 10 p.m. on Downtown Saturday Night, this month on May 20. For more information call 624-2878.
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