Upstairs/Downstairs at Charlie James Gallery
Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles
through July 20
By Lorraine Heitzman
There is a fascinating undercurrent of psychological themes embedded in a pair of shows now on view at Charlie James Gallery. In the main gallery, Gabriella Sanchez straddles two distinct cultures, her Mexican heritage and her Southern California roots in bold, graphic paintings that mesh her dual identities. Downstairs, Specific Abstractions, curated by Matt Stromberg, makes the case for the influence of the individual and culture upon non-objective art, influences that have largely gone unacknowledged. Both shows are excellent examples of the way different artists use biographical information in their works, particularly when they involve a mix of cultures.
In Gabriella Sanchez’s second show at Charlie James Gallery, In a Manner of Speaking, her paintings continue the play between graphics, letterforms and bold color that she introduced last year in her debut solo show, By Any Other Name. When she splashed onto the scene her work was notably vibrant and fresh, bringing her unique sensibility to a territory once occupied by the likes of Corita Kent, Stuart Davis, Andy Warhol, and the many other artists who have been inspired by advertising. Sanchez borrows freely from established styles, but through her references to Hispanic culture and newly introduced elements of her personal story, she convincingly makes the work her own.
The eight paintings in this show have become more complex than those exhibited in 2018. Whereas previous paintings impressed with their joyful, pure palette and simplicity, Sanchez now uses photo transfers and employs deeper colors, more tonalities, and perhaps most significantly, more complicated narratives. Metallic gold, silver and bronze have been applied to the surfaces and contribute to the saturation and density of the paintings. Instead of maintaining the stripped-down look of her previous work, she has added images from family photographs that introduce men constrained by their machismo, and uses both English and Spanish keywords to highlight ironic differences between the two cultures. In First and Second, a man’s face in profile is featured twice, once in black and white and the other with an overlay of green on top of the face, almost like a kabuki mask. Below, in Gothic lettering, the word “Baile” is written, with the first four letters highlighted. In Spanish, the word means dance, and to emphasize the meaning, a photographic print of what appears to be a ballerina by Degas is superimposed over the word, partially obscuring the letter “e”, so in effect, “bail” is read first. In this painting, as in the others, Sanchez is setting up word games, reinforced by images to point out the ironies and discrepancies between two interpretations. The result seems a little awkward as she transitions to more elaborate compositions, but it is compelling to follow this artist’s development as she feels her way to deeper emotional content.
Matt Stromberg, a Los Angeles-based art writer, has assembled the work of eight Southern Californian abstract artists in Specific Abstractions and urges the viewer to consider the work in the context of the artists’ inspirations. In general, abstraction is often seen through the lens of modernism and conceptualism (and many other ism’s) but the artists in this show imbue their work with meaning tied to their different cultural backgrounds or biographies; Tanya Aguiñiga, Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia and Rubén Ortiz Torres were each born in Mexico, and Leonardo Bravo was born in Chile, but the idea of Specific Abstractions is not about drawing from a specific heritage but rather that non-objective art can be highly personal, decorative or even nostalgic. There is a strong humanistic impulse behind these works instead of a purely intellectual pursuit. Perhaps Stromberg’s larger point may be that all art should be understood in context; certainly these examples destroy the assumption that abstract art is made in a vacuum.
Bravo’s small hard-edged, geometric paintings reference tapestries and the architecture of his native country. They explore spatial relationships as well as textile patterns but are virtuoso gems of color and balance that succeed on their own merits. Hurtado Segovia appropriates weaving techniques that recall Mexican shopping bags and turns them into artful wall hangings made from woven, hand-painted paper. These miniature pieces hint at the impact of his larger tapestries but still show his ability to elevate and isolate a lo-brow method of construction into an object of fine art. Tanya Aguiñiga, raised in Tijuana, has long been involved with border communities, using art as a bridge for her social practice. Her two textile pieces, a macramé wall hanging with brass embellishments and a free-hanging banner with gold leaf, reflect her interest in crafts and her relationship to Hispanic culture. In Spring Portal Rachid Bouhamidi finds inspiration from his Moroccan heritage and uses applied arts to slyly incorporate a comic figure within the mesmerizing geometries of Islamic mosaics.
Brenna Youngblood contributes an oversized, painted three dimensional letterform perched atop a slim table. I, like some of her earlier assemblages, is a sculptural metaphor for a simple equation, or in this case, a resolute self-portrait. Rubén Ortiz Torres turns to the cosmos in Lo que se ve no se pregunta (What you see you don’t ask), flipping a well-known axiom on its head in a beautifully realized extraterrestrial landscape. John Knuth’s The Low Desert is an example of one of the artist’s fly paintings in which he uses insects to create his suggestive, minimal imagery. By altering the diet of flies and confining them to a desired space, Knuth harnesses their labor in a bazaar collaboration that he likens to the social construct of Los Angeles. Lastly, Dan Levenson creates an imaginary history of early twentieth century modern art replete with aged, crackled canvases and easels. Levenson shows his love and affinity for the birth of abstraction and in doing so, makes that moment in time tangible, a case of fiction being just as convincing, if not more real than fact.
Both Specific Abstractions and In a Manner of Speaking bring insight into different cultural and personal identities through art that spans many narrative and abstract forms. In the end they resonate with us by offering new ways to look at art, and new ways to think about ourselves, too.