Friday, May 18, 2012


I promised to write more about the art and artists on display at the new facility for Dr. Astrid Heger's Violence Intervention Program (VIP) at the USC-LA County General Hospital.  Given a location where severely traumatized youngsters would be brought in for care and treatment and where the physical environment, for this reason, needed to be as warmly welcoming as possible, certain parameters were established and conveyed to the participating artists: the work they submitted would need to be upbeat and inspiring.  Being given limits of this kind is usually anathema to artists, but who could object when those for whom the art works were primarily intended were child victims of brutal sexual assault or physical battery, and the caring people who brought them in for medical attention and protection?

So these were the parameters, I learned from Kathy Gallegos of Avenue 50 Studio: no violence, obviously.  No sexual reference.  Nothing downbeat or threatening.  And no representations of male figures--a sad reflection of the fact that the vast majority of the aggressors who mistreat these children are men.  One of only two pictures that were rejected for the current show--once the artists understood the situation, they knew how to respond--featured the image of a saint with hand raised in blessing: it could have been seen as a gesture signaling the threat of violence.  Nothing, then, that might evoke the trauma that had been visited upon the youngest and most vulnerable of our citizens.

It turns out that there is a lot to be said for unabashedly upbeat art.  First, that it need not be sentimental or absurdly Polly-annish.  There is an exuberance in the VIP show that lights up the institutional spaces of the hospital reception areas and corridors, suffusing them with joyful energy and color and yet not playing down to the audience.  Frank Romero's "Holiday Gifts: Guitar with Teddy" captures the spirit of things perfectly.

Frank Romero, "Holiday Gifts: Guitar with Teddy," 2000, o/c, 2.5 x 3.5 ft
It's a painter's painting, colorful and sensual with bold brushwork and thick, deliciously gooey oil paint.  Romero is an old hand in the studio, and his ease and mastery of the medium allow him to render the "gifts"--stuffed animals and toys--with humor and a sense of child-like delight, but utterly without condescension.

The representation of natural beauty can easily be a trap for painters in our modern times because it is so easy to fall into the pretty picture syndrome.  Still, nature remains one of the great sources of human joy, and it is unsurprising to find it either as the focus or as the backdrop for many of these paintings.  Consider the cactus plants in"Border and Spirits," a picture skillfully painted by Raoul de la Sota.

Raoul de la Sota, "Border Spirits," 1998, acrylic and tissue on canvas, 47" x 79"

Despite those spines with their "don't touch me" warning, this rich evocation of a familiar Southern California sight manages to convey the warmth and fertility of the environment.  Backlit by sunlight, the cactus blossoms glow with exotic, subtropical promise of healing energy.

Rich color predominates in the show.  Even a night painting by Kikki Eder, "Shortcut through City Terrance," is radiant with it:

Kikki Eder, "Shortcut through City Terrace," o/c, 36" x 30"

Street lamps turn magically into big yellow suns and planets, pavements turn into rivers of orange and gold, buildings seem built of flowing lava.  The city morphs into a scrumptious candyland orgy of soft edges and liquid paint.

The painting that perhaps most responded to Dr. Heger's vision, and which she insisted should be placed right at the entry to the clinic is Poli Marichal's "After the Rain"(the image below, I'm afraid, does not begin to do it justice)...

Poli Marichal, "After the Rain," 2011, colored pencils, graphite, ball point pen over  prepared gessoed paper, 50" x 35"

It's a vibrant land- and cityscape, humming with energy, evoking the shimmering clarity of Los Angeles when a good rainfall has cleared the air and left it fresh and tingling on the breath--a veritable, almost nuclear sunburst of brilliant yellows in a sea of fractured images.  

There are many equally compelling paintings that go unmentioned here.  In curating the show, Kathy Gallegos was mindful of another concern of Dr. Heger's: that the collection should represent the diverse nature of the hospital's surrounding urban community.  Impossible to walk through these reception areas and halls without being made aware of the immensely diverse creative energy that flows through this part of Los Angeles.  It's not just an ethnic thing--though that is a part of it: along with us "white folk"--I happen to be one--there is in this area an increasingly nondiscriminating mix of Asian, Hispanic and African American populations. The restless energy of these creative people represents the best in us: a diversity of imagination and potential, a diversity of vision and aspiration, a diversity of skills and goals that is at once exhilarating and profoundly human. It bodes well, I like to think, for the future of Los Angeles.

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