More questions than answers

More questions than answers

The Armory hopes to provoke discussion about the ‘Art and Ideas’ of Identity

By Julie Riggott 11/01/2007

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A new exhibit at the Armory Center for the Arts will give you something to talk about.

Among the bold artwork, which is by turns mesmerizing and shocking, are a Japanese ukiyo-e print invaded by hip-hop culture and a comic-book image of Lincoln and Washington running a printing press for porn.

The art is as complex as our world is complicated. Part of the reason is its topic, which is anything but easy to define: race and personal identity.

“New Images of Identity” continues at the Armory Center for the Arts through Nov. 18 as part of the Pasadena Arts Council’s Art & Ideas Festival. The exhibit features works by an eclectic mix of eight renowned American artists who tackle issues of race and identity by posing questions, provoking discussion and even poking fun at the seriousness of it all.

When Curator and Director of Gallery Programs Jay Belloli heard the festival’s theme was skin, he immediately knew what the Armory’s contribution should be.

“We haven’t done an exhibit about personal identity for over a decade,” Belloli said. “It seemed very important to focus on artists of color of a younger generation and see how they were dealing with issues of identity.”

Belloli found that artists were exploring race in very complex ways. Part of the reason was multiculturalism; many straddled more than one culture, whether genetically, geographically, socially or just artistically.

LA artist Lezley Saar said her works from the “Anomalies” and “Mulatto Nation” series are almost like self-portraits expressing her personal feelings of identity crisis. Saar appears Caucasian but is of mixed race; her mother is African American and her father was Caucasian.

The subjects of her assemblage art (painting and collage) are often outsiders who shatter stereotypical notions of race, such as an albino African American who was exhibited as a sideshow freak and an African-American man who passed as a female prostitute, both in the 1800s.

Saar said she usually tries to explore questions: “Is racial identity who you are and who your family is, or how others perceive you?”

But at the same time, she said, she’s not an angry person, consumed by the question of race. “My work is serious and silly at the same time,” Saar said.

John Trevino said his mural, “What Comes Next,” is “as much a question as a statement.” The Long Beach native, who recently moved to Washington, DC, to teach at Howard University, said he aimed to express a feeling of uncertainty and change in this painting.

“I’m interested in the future, what’s on the edge and about to happen,” he said.

“What Comes Next” depicts people of color in a sport not often considered diverse: water polo. Trevino, who is not African American but strongly identifies with that culture, sees the sports theme of his painting as a metaphor for competing groups or ideas. But it also has a literal meaning and points to a future where instead of the stereotypical linkage between, say African Americans and basketball, all sports will be shared arenas for all races.

Yoshua Okon divides his time between Mexico City and Los Angeles. You hear his video installation before you see it: the disturbing chanting and grunting serve as a soundtrack for the entire exhibit. In the video room, “Lago Bolsena” runs on three television screens. One by one, perfectly ordinary-looking adults and children climb out of a hole in the ground and form a group that engages in a series of behaviors — throwing rocks at a wall, walking on all fours, grooming each other’s hair — that make them look like animals. It’s all obviously an artificial construct, with video cameras making the artist’s presence known. Okon’s fake documentary transforms the people of a “dangerous” neighborhood in Mexico City into the savages others expect them to be.

A bit of tongue-in-cheek humor also inhabits Iona Rozeal Brown’s work. She adds surprising elements — blackface, marijuana leaves on a kimono, an afro, hip-hop culture jewelry — to traditional Japanese ukiyo-e prints in her vibrant paintings.

Laylah Ali also distorts our notions of distinct races with her finely detailed work. Inspired by comics, Egyptian hieroglyphs and American folk art, the faces and elaborately patterned costumes seem familiar and foreign at the same time.

Enrique Chagoya takes all kinds of races and cultures, as well as religion and politics, to task in his satirical work. In “The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals,” a comic book-like serial with biting humor, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington are shown printing porn, while another segment depicts a woman with a Jesus head. “Road Map” is a minutely detailed world map dotted with icons like Uncle Sam picking his nose, a turbaned figure, dead whales, oil towers and even a Where’s Waldo? tossed in the mix, suggesting two perspectives on current events as a game and a quagmire.

On the more serious side of social and political issues are the works of Dinh Q. Le and Kara Walker. Le weaves strips of photos to create images recalling the Vietnam War in his “Persistence of Memory” series, where his use of color evokes fire in one and ashes in another. Walker’s controversial drawings and watercolors, titled “Negress Notes,” are full of shocking imagery of rape and other subjugation. They depict caricatured African Americans and Caucasians in raw, stereotyped ways that spotlight the issue of race and its more obvious antebellum conflicts.

Belloli grants the art is not all “sweetness and light,” but insists each artist has a message worthy of discussion.

“As a community art center, we have to deal with serious issues like that,” Belloli said, “and hopefully get a dialogue going.”

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