Los Angeles

“Los Four”

“Los Four” (Roberto de la Rocha, Carlos Almaraz, Gilbert Lujan, and Frank Romero) at LACMA is one of those patronizing, Cheviot Hills liberal shows which, if you’ve any quality sense (and who operates with none?), puts your conscience on the spot: democrat or elitist, pluralist or academician, open spirit or cancerous up-tighter? The exhibition documents, by way of a bewildering (to the Bauhaus-corrupted, anal-retentive eye) array of drawings, collages, flea-market bric-a-brac (on a cooperative “altar”), demimurals, paintings, and even the primered nose end of a ’51 Chevy (my first car), the Chicano esthetic. The museum’s imperatives are real: anything east of Western Avenue is obviated from “cultural” L.A., which means whole barrios, ghettos, and white trash neighborhoods go unattended, if not condemned; Chicano artists have been specifically underexposed, even while official tokens went out to blacks and women; and, the plastic stuffiness of LACMA needs regular fumigating. But, in the presence of such a sociological bazaar (the walls are painted bright pink, banana green, and beige––like a Lincoln Heights cantina) some questions occur:

1. Out front, are “Los Four” any good as artists?

2. Do “Los Four” reflect a Chicano esthetic?

3. Is this Chicano esthetic any good? (A fair query, I think. Why is it sentimental stereotypes—Jews as warmly familial, blacks bursting with “soul,” WASPs as ingenious and industrious, and women with osmotic roots in life––pass unchallenged, while no more greatly inaccurate downers––Jews as usurers, blacks as loafers, WASPs as xenophobic haters, and women as . . . well, skip it––are as scandalous as pee in the holy water? If you’re free to say, “This is the Chicano esthetic and it’s terrific,” you’re equally free to say, “This is the Chicano esthetic and it stinks.”)

4. How much are we to sentimentalize/add/subtract for the disadvantages of the barrio? Is the subliminal title of the exhibition, “Four Chicano Artists Who Aren’t Much Good But Who Might Be If They Had the Same Privileges You Have?”

My answers are: 1) fair, and uneven; 2) yes, but glossed over with art-schoolisms; 3) yes, in the original—the spray can graffiti around Belmont High is ten times as sharp as the rounded-off appropriations here; and 4) none, since the artists are living professionals, not anonymous finds of an archaeological dig. The trouble with “Los Four” as artists is that they’ve been corrupted: they’ve taught in art schools/colleges, worked as designers, etc., and the road back is rocky indeed. Many of the amalgams (Cubism + tattoo doodling, Abstract Expressionism + “Viva los Flats C/S” on the bus bench, or soft painting + murales por la gente) don’t catch, or need more time. It took a few hundred years for the Hispano invasion to blend with the Indian cultures to produce Mexican culture, and it might take another hundred for the Mexican culture to meld with the (ugh) industrial materialism of white American consumerism. Still, Chicano is not Mexican (prizefights between featherweights from Sonora and Maravilla at the Olympic Auditorium assume, with the divided crowd, the intensity of civil wars), so it’s a little strained, for instance, when the big mural-size canvas of the noble, Aztec-like farmworkers against the porcine, malignant cops/growers drapes itself in the cloak of badly drawn Rivera/Orozco/Siqueiros muscle-bound proletarianism. The trouble with the museum is that its architecture, bureaucratic air, and curatorial chic have, collectively, the ability to authenticate anything; “Los Four” doesn’t Chicano-ize the museum (why don’t they paint the outside of that monstrosity pink/green/beige?), but rather museum-izes the Chicanos.

––Peter Plagens

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