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Visual Voices

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Setting the Table: Cross-cultural memories vie for attention in Richard Godinez's 1996 oil painting.

A new exhibit at the Triton embraces disparate visions

By Ann Elliott Sherman

THE TITLE of the Triton Museum's show of 11 South Bay Mexican-American artists, La Voz (The Voice), is a trifle misleading. A single bass line of personal and/or cultural history may ground the creative impulse, but each artist sings a distinctive, solo aria. Although the song never remains the same, they do share the power to deliver an emotional experience.

Joe Bastida Rodriguez' In the Name of My Father uses his family's reminiscences as the chorus for a visual eulogy. Their recorded stories emanate from under a last supper of tamales served on clay place settings coated with a visceralike glaze, the whole draped with an ethereal white veil. Behind hangs an oil portrait of the artist's father as a young man, hands in pockets and elbows winging, a hat obscuring his bowed head. It's a nice universalizing touch, and at the same time, the body's pose carries subliminal associations with a crucified Christ.

This religious connection is underscored by the two flanking portraits of Rodriguez' father's oft-invoked patron saints, Luke the Evangelist and Jude of Lost Causes. The artist portrays these saints as calaveras (skulls), their white-painted images floating on a curtain of sheer illusion draped over a dried bouquet of red roses, one flower for each year of his father's life. Family photos, personal "relics" mounted on purple (the vestment color of atonement) velvet complete the altar tableau.

Also rooted in Catholicism are Lisa Ramirez' heavily lacquered icons, peepholes on a mystical world given form in tongues of fire, hands, thorns and doves. In her mixed-media series My Abuelita Was Irish, Ramirez enshrines the Irish reverence for the written word as well as the sometimes hazy quality of memory. In My Abuelita, she uses small, enameled open books as the ground for poetic images, reductions of handwritten letters and blurred snapshots set into cut-out pages.

The books' inner spines are built up and painted to resemble vertebrae or spiny cactus; a narrow braid of auburn hair serves as a bookmark. It's been said that the Irish are the Mexicans of Europe--historical parallels aside, Ramirez' work finds the spiritual connection between peoples whose ancestral beliefs still permeate their Christian expression.

Carlos Pérez' installations reflect the clarity and efficacy required of an accomplished graphic artist like himself. We're not left to puzzle out a meaning with works like Acquiesce spelling it right out in white letters propped against the wall where black-and-white photos become icons of Self-expression, Intimacy and Solidarity, respectively. From the old coot giving us the finger to the beautiful embrace of lesbian lovers to the heartstoppingly open gaze of the little girl holding her daddy's much darker hand, Pérez presents perfectly composed, irresistible arguments for the cultural values personified by the images. His method is a kind of guerrilla PR borrowing Madison Avenue tactics.

Consuelo Jimenez Underwood continues her interlacing of cultural history and homages to the natural and spiritual realms with the uplifting Pathway to Heaven. A gently helixing Jacob's Ladder woven of red copper, gold and barbed wire rises from the center of a Guadalupe crescent moon outlined on the floor in white quartz stones, corn kernels and bits of gold wire. The fragile mesh at the bottom gets tighter as the path ascends, and the spotlights fixed upon the woven metals set them aglow like a pillar of light--a shining path, indeed.

WHETHER KINDLING the fiery shiver of wonder--that fleeting recognition of connections inspired by wind-raked clouds echoing fingers of shadow and light on the hills below (Dusk and Dusk II)--or conjuring up that hour when black really has absorbed every color (Palms), Ernest Regua delivers the landscape from the prosaic actual to its underlying supernatural confluence of pattern and magic.

His intimate, almost abstract, narrative portraits (especially Vigil) are moving because they suggest more than describe. These compelling portraits demark figures with an aura of color, scratching out emanations of a face and encapsulating with the broadest of gestures the deepest of feelings. Again, the colors are not literal, but somehow truer--emotional shorthand for what's going on below the surface. With Regua's work, we are reminded that seeing is a physical sensation.

With Offerings Made to the Loss of Home, Pilar Agüero turns a corner of the museum into an intimate Dia de los Muertos altar where what is memorialized is not just the loss of a loved one, but a way of life. Shelves of white wood--strewn with carnation petals and blanketed with maize-colored beeswax--bear small, simple charcoal drawings pasted on wood and covered in wax. Interspersed with tiny woven nests, the drawings form a symbolic diary of the domestic slide from a home crowned in heaven to one spewing hellfire.

The artist's bleak vision is contrasted with a tiny reproduction of previous, colorful work. The new drawings, on the other hand, have the stripped-down look and feel of the barest essentials salvaged from the ashes. Along the way, we get visual clues as to what went wrong: a snug nest shelters shattered china; a uterus is put above a cut-off right arm; a fetus lies buried in a frighteningly ordered place deep below a fertile field.

Surprising gifts occasionally fill the nests, the kind of shiny things a magpie might collect: satin ribbon, chocolate coins. In between are drawings like a "dog with only three legs"--discovery mixed with the pain of learning to walk again. Finally, the house rests nowhere and home is a nest of hair, something that only comes from one's own head.

The wax preserves the enshrined memories, keeps the raw and personal contained at a slight remove, while turning the offering itself into a votive candle awaiting sacrifice to faith. Agüero's silent narrative has the force of a revelation of unspeakable pain, a measured, earned beauty.

Being pigeonholed as an artist of a particular ethnic identity can be both a blessing, opening doors to exhibitions like La Voz, and a curse of constraining expectations. But this show suggests one gift of having roots in a readily identified community just may be communion--the ability to touch upon the universal in expressing the most heartfelt parts of oneself.


La Voz runs through July 28 at the Triton Museum of Art, 1505 Warburton Ave., Santa Clara. (408/247-9340)

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From the June 27-July 3, 1996 issue of Metro

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