Pop Surreal Playhouse at Artshare LA

Pop-Surreal Playhouse. Artshare LA. Photo Credit Kristine Schomaker.

Pop Surreal Playhouse at Artshare LA

By Betty Ann Brown

Through October 22nd


The Los Angeles art world was stunned to learn of the death of Gregorio Escalante last month. The highly respected Escalante was one of the first and most influential champions of Lowbrow and Street Art, a founder of Juxtapoz Magazine, and director of a successful eponymous gallery in Chinatown. His spirit lives on in the current exhibition at Art Share. Co-curated with Wendy Sherman, his long-time friend and gallery director, “Pop Surreal Playhouse” (Escalante’s choice of title) features twelve remarkable artists: Susan Amorde, Kimberly F. Davis, Reibot (Raymond de Luna), Leonard Greco, Yehsiming Jue, Tim Koch, Bonnie Lambert, Robert Nelson, Samuelle Richardson, Daena Title, Paul Torres, and Tslil Tsemet. 

I could write about Samuelle Richardson‘s canny use of fabric scraps arranged to echo Abstract Expressionist collage work. (I am thinking of Robert Motherwell here.) Or Susan Amorde‘s vintage suitcases converted into magical containers for visual statements.  Or Bonnie Lambert‘s gorgeous depictions of California sunsets viewed through a screen of powerlines. Or Paul Torres‘s portraits of women who, following the dominant cultural ideals, have large breasts, thick lips, long blonde hair, and not much else. Or I could write about Kimberly F. Davis‘s handsome photographs of the city at night, where she captures the light and “bends it to [her] will.” But instead, I am writing about the works that fit most comfortably into the rubric of what Escalante and the Juxtapoz artists call Pop Surrealism.

One of the brightest stars of the show is Leonard Greco, a self-taught painter, printmaker, and sculptor. “Pop Surreal Playhouse” features Greco’s “soft” sculptures of doll-like men surrounded by plants and animals, angels and demons, and a plethora of decorative flourishes that give his ensembles a Folk Baroque quality.

Created by indigenous artists during the Spanish Colonial era, Folk Baroque was characterized by intentional visual redundancy or what theorists term “horror vacuii,” i.e., the fear of empty space. There is no empty space in the Capilla del Rosario of the Church of Santo Domingo in Puebla, Mexico. Nor is there empty space in Greco’s sculpted figures. Their facial contortions and exaggerated bodies both attract and repel. The first piece that gallery visitors encounter is Greco’s silvery mirror, reflecting a grisaille image of what appears to be a medieval man’s head. The mirror’s frame is encrusted with brightly colored figures that crowd each other and tumble into space. Around the corner at Art Share is a figure that mixes pre-Columbian iconography–e.g. the goggles and headgear of the Aztec water god Tlaloc–with a European devil whose mouth gapes open, revealing a fiery furnace and another masked demon. (I am reminded that the Spaniards considered all of the Aztec gods “demonios” and condemned them to the conflagrations of conquest.)

Tslil Tsemet is another Pop Surrealist super star. Her paintings are technically classical, in that she employs the demanding devices of academically realism (anatomical proportions, light and shade, local color, etc.). Their content, however, is quirky, troubling, and sometimes downright creepy. Looking at her paintings, I am reminded of Salvador Dali, the quintessential Surrealist whose paintings were so offensive in the 1920s and 30s that viewers pummeled them with rocks and other detritus. (I know, they don’t seem offensive today, but imagine your grandmother or great grandmother going to a gallery and seeing a large work entitled “The Great Masturbator,” Dali’s masterwork of 1929. My foremothers would have been horrified!) In another work, the Tsemet pairs a nude woman and her snarling cat. A wound on the woman’s chest bleeds into a chalice, in a wry parody of Christian communion. In “Ceremony,” the artist depicts a golden Egyptian mummy astride a sacrificial man. He lies on an altar that appears suspended in a night sky. Tsemet’s third canvas shows pairs of children frolicking in a fertile earth. Above, divine hands flank a glowing disc that seems to descend from a flying saucer. Silhouetted crowds stand mutely (and subserviently?) below it. Tsemet writes that she “blurs the line between Kitsch and Sacrament.” She certainly blurs the lines between life and death, sacred and profane, or heaven and hell, accomplishing in art what the ancients sought to do with mythology and religion.

Daena Title paints Barbie dolls drowning in pool water, an apt metaphor for the domestication and domination of women. The images fluctuate between humor (“A doll in a pool! What fun for a little girl!”), to horror. (This is, after all, the depiction of a drowning female.) But the painting is lush and appealing. Like so many Pop Surrealists, Title straddles the beautiful and the abject. (Barbie is of course the doll that best represents the idea of beauty seen in Paul Torres’s paintings. Her feet are shorter than her nose, her breasts larger than her head. And she has the butt of a 14-year-old boy.) (Sigh.)

Robert Nelson‘s work is a smart combination of hyperrealism, comic book color, and 50s nostalgia. It’s like Chuck Close took acid and ended up in televised purgatory somewhere between “I Love Lucy” and an episode of “Mad Men.” The figures are all white. They wear 50s glasses, watch the boob tube, and eat off TV trays. And they celebrate the arrival of Technicolor in brilliant passages of red and green, blue and orange. In one, a blue Raphael Madonna embraces a green robot (instead of Baby Jesus). A bright orange cat looks on. A second version presents another Renaissance Madonna with an orange robot child and a blue cat. The painting is precise and convincing–which says a lot since the compositions are simultaneously amusing and disturbing.

Tim Koch creates fascinating miniature tableaux of city scenes with vintage buildings, cars (is that a 1968 VW bus?), and signage (a neon arrow pointing to a trailer park, a gigantic donut.) Their tiny scale fascinates, as does the exactitude of his execution. And there is whimsical playfulness: In one, an immense cigarette falls onto a tiny street, crushing a tiny red sports car, like a tobacco-fraught Godzilla. I think of two LA artists as I view this work: Michael McMillan, master of detailed miniature environments, and Dwora Fried, mistress of boxed tableaux. I would love to see an exhibition comparing the three of them. What marvels they are!

Reibot (Raymond de Luna) has been inspired by the “quirky and outlandish” characters of US cartoons–especially Felix the Cat–as well as Japanese anime. He covers their faces with worm-like (or perhaps intestine-like?) extrusions of color. The graphically detailed worms (ribbons?) obscure his characters’ faces, much as time obscures memory. Reibot watched hours of cartoons as a child and teen, and now exorcizes his recollections through art.

For me, the great discovery of “Pop Surreal Playhouse” is the work of Yehsiming Jue. She calls this body of work “Transmogrify” which means: “to change in appearance or form, especially strangely or grotesquely.” Her work may be strange and grotesque, but it is also visually stunning. She uses human teeth and cells as her subjects, and the way she manipulates them is both fantastic and eerie. The human mouth is biforcated, then mirrored, and presented at several times its natural size. To walk up to her large (3′ x 4.5′) canvas of pearly teeth and crimson tongue is to confront the open jaws of hell. (That’s right, the same jaws that appear in Leonard Greco’s work.) Or perhaps it’s the threatening mandibles of an alien. (Maybe the same alien who is sending messages from the flying saucer in Tslil Tsemet’s piece…?)

The connecting lines of visual appeal and psychic disturbance flow through most of the artists’ works. (Those are lovely teeth, but they will bite you! That’s inviting water, but Barbie is drowning, etc.) The best of Pop Surrealism always plays with tensions and contradictions: attract/repel, delight/disturb, seduce/resist. The exhibition is a fitting tribute to Gregorio Escalante who was, after all, the single most important person in establishing Pop Surrealism as a movement. Curator Wendy Sherman has done a superlative job.

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