Tuesday, July 9, 2013

John Valadez at the National Museum of Mexican Art

John Valadez,  through August 11, National Museum of Mexican Art

The figurative paintings of John Valadez are overwhelming.  The people feel too close, the colors too intense, the energy too exhausting, crackling  with the inescapable reality of a newspaper’s front page or a busy corner outside a convenience store.  It’s what you might call popular art, with more of a journalistic than a  theoretical agenda for depicting  community life on the  streets and nearby beaches  of his Hispanic neighborhood.    In that way it fits the title given to this exhibition, “Santa Ana Condition”, a mostly Hispanic city near Los Angeles,  where, in 1998, Valadez  painted  the walls of the Federal Courthouse with a cycle of murals depicting summer festivals.   The drama on his streets is strictly personal.  If there’s a fight, he reports on the emotional aftermath.  Mostly he shows the inner struggle of people with their own desires as stimulated by the modern, urban world around them. 

 Sometimes, especially at the beach, turbulent appetites may come alive as fantastic sea monsters or whales, in response, perhaps to the voluptuous curves of a woman’s body or an automobile’s fender.   This is the American dream of Surfer music from the 1960’s:  buxom girls and classic cars, especially convertibles,  on the warm, sunlit sand.

With work spanning four decades, the exhibit reveals the incremental development of the artist’s vision.  In the 1970’s he was assembling collages of newspaper clippings at the same time he was making  black and white photographs of Mexican Americans  posing for him on the street  Then he switched to color film -  and then he made large, sometimes life size,   drawings from the photographs.  By the mid 80’s he was painting complex narratives that feel like photographic records of things both real and fantastic. The highlight of this period is a monumental pastel entitled “Pool Party” (1986), depicting two young Latin women behind the house grooming the family dog and hosing down the edge of the pool, apparently unconcerned with the nearby hills that are ferociously burning behind them. Hey girls! Wake up and smell the smoke!  There’s that gentle sense of humor in the later narrative work as well, some of it more fantastic, others less so.

Dulces, 1999

 He depicts a world that’s awkward, funny, and brimming with hope and excitement, but not especially elegant or profound.  And unlike  the leading American figure painters of that period, like Eric Fischl, the characters in his paintings feel as innocent as the noble peasants depicted by an earlier generation of Mexican artists.

Tomoaki Suzuki at the Art Institute

Tomoaki Suzuki – Roehm Terrace, Art Institute, through Oct. 27 

It doesn’t look like Japanese artists are ever going to shake their aesthetic inclinations however alien they might be to the provocative anti-aesthetics of contemporary art. Tomoaki Suzuki can’t stop himself from making his 20-inch statues look really good, even if he places them on the floor where it’s difficult to discern their quality.

He makes expressionless polychrome figures that in many ways resemble the carefully detailed dolls one might find in Japanese gift shops. It’s just that instead of pretty Geishas in kimonos, he represents the handsome young people of his London neighborhood in the kind of clothing that expresses their individuality. By placing them directly on the floor, he offers the thrill of the incongruous, but he’s not just a skilled model maker, or a conceptual artist who hires one.

 Katsura Funikoshi

 He’s in a tradition of figure sculpture, as received from his teacher, Katsura Funikoshi, whose father was also a sculptor. Though enhanced by the fluid naturalism of Rodin and late 19th C. France, this tradition remains essentially Japanese in its straightforward inner strength as achieved by the execution of crisp planes carved across the surface. He has created a specific posture, character, and costume for each person, but though great attention has been paid to every eyelash and belt buckle of his British models, they have a distinctly Japanese elegance and attitude. And the paint has been applied with a sensitivity to color and pattern more than to specify details of costume. Like many Japanese sculptors over the past thousand years, Suzuki is a wood carver, though in this display, the carvings have been cast in bronze, allowing them to be displayed in an outdoor setting like the Roehm Terrace high atop the Modern Wing at the Art Institute. And what a magnificent setting it is! – offering the magnificent steel and glass skyline that rises just north of Grant Park.

 Even the largest sculpture can feel dinky on that heroic, sunlit platform – but surprisingly Suzuki’s figures feel large and important, even if you have to crawl around on your hands and knees to properly see them. It’s a good bet that eventually his work will be displayed up on pedestals, allowing viewers to properly see it without scuffing their knees. That may defy the artist’s original intention, but perhaps that intention was only to display it in the way most suitable to attract the contemporary art world.