Linda Vallejo “Keepin’ it Brown”
bG gallery, Santa Monica, CA
by Lawrence Gipe
Through October 8th
Linda Vallejo is in her element during an opening, shaking hands, hugging friends, and always ready to take a sidebar with gallery patrons. “Do you want me to run the numbers?” she says, gently corralling viewers to explain “48.3%“, a series of large works on graph paper consisting of abstract, symmetrical patterns made up of brown dots. Vallejo swiftly de-codes the design for onlookers (To be precise: 48.3% is the Latino population of LA, each 24 square-inch image entails 48,400 total squares with 23,377 dots to account for 48.3% of the entire field.)
Although political, “The Brown Dot Project” exudes the zen-like chill factor of Agnes Martin. The entire suite has a charming, “loving hands at home” quality in its tactile simplicity. The visual appeal of each pattern collides skillfully with the statistical backstory – transporting the viewer from abstraction to the realm of activist art reality. The designs that Vallejo constructs from all this data, although ritualistic in feeling, are not tied to any specific meaning. While “48.3%” deals with the overall Latino population of LA, perhaps the more revealing works are smaller pieces that address the percentage of Latinos working in various occupations. An example close to home would be “National Latino Artists, 9.12%”, a typically small percentage, which Vallejo fashions into a pattern of brown dots in the shape of an easel.
Vallejo’s press release promises a “beautifully brown body of work” and her contribution to the Getty’s PST: LA/LA series at bG gallery in Bergamot Station does not disappoint. “Keepin it Brown” features 45 works including “The Brown Dot Project” as well as a dynamic series called “Make ‘em All Mexican” which uses the strategy of changing white cultural icons into brown ones. Of course, these bodies of work function very differently on a visual level – but both question how class and color delineates our interpretation of culture.
As a child, Vallejo ‘s family moved around, often to far-flung areas. Although Vallejo was born in Boyle Heights, her family moved to Germany when she was 3; during the pivotal mid-1960’s ,they moved back to the US where Vallejo went to middle school in Montgomery, Alabama. During her early years, she kept close to her “Mexicanismo” through her enormous family (which includes, apparently, “hundreds of cousins”), but pop-culturally her influences were diverse and often – white. “I grew up with Frank Sinatra and the Flintstones!” she likes to note, and the icons of the moment might have provided Vallejo with a certain continuity during her transient childhood. In her later teens, she came back to LA, where she re-discovered her roots in Chicano culture. The rest, one might say, is (revisionist) history.
In the “Make ‘em All Mexican” series, Vallejo’s transformation of Warhol’s “Marilyns” seems somewhat obligatory, but her other choices are less predictable and personal. Most hilarious: a dark brown Bob’s Big Boy (“Muchachote’), a “revised” Elvis (El Vis), and the “Munsters”( The Mexters) family of action figures, done in different shades of brown. A subset, “Brown Oscars”, tackles Hollywood’s diversity problem head on. From Vallejo’s own work, we know that the number of US Latino Movie Producers and Directors equals 1.72% of the total – a pittance, and the percentage of working actors is probably larger, but not significantly so. Hollywood is the place, after all, where Jewish actors from Red Hook get to wear brown make-up and play Mexican bandits (see Eli Wallach in “Viva Zapata!”). So, it’s fun to see Vallejo’s amusing fantasies of a browner shade of Tinseltown, like her transformation of the Oscar-wielding Jennifer Lawrence in to a sienna-tinted “Juanita Lorenzo”. In other words, if Latino actors can’t get Oscars, then make the white ones Mexican! In the end, Vallejo’s “Keepin it Brown” keeps it real, in the most positive, amusing and heart-felt way