Before the heat of the election season overwhelms the light of, oh, rational debate, you should see "American Beauties" at Space on Spurgeon in Santa Ana. Featuring four artists steeped in Latino culture, it is unflinching and unapologetic, surreal and hyperreal. The pieces here give voice to a segment of America still largely underrepresented.
LA artist Mark Vallen lends his subjects a weightiness previously ascribed to iconic Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange. Her records of the poor and displaced get a 21st-century update in My Nature Is Hunger(2005), an oil on canvas that captures acutely a young Hispanic woman cradling her son. Their forlorn expressions reveal eyes already lowered by harsh realities. Witness the fabric delicately gathered around the stark white buttons of a girl's festival garb in The Red Dress (2006). Or the defiant gaze and bottomlessly blue coat of an anonymous Chicana in She Who Wears Bells on Her Cheeks(1993), an allusion to the Aztec goddess of the moon. Vallen's photorealistic style is called figurative realism, and it neither gives quarter nor pulls its punches.
While Emigdio Vasquez is perhaps best known in Orange County for his murals, his contributions to the show are all oil-on-canvas. The two most striking could not be more different in subject. His fascination with the pachuco culture of the mid-20th century is fully realized in Pachucos on Fourth Street, a proud group portrait of zoot-suited badasses standing outside a neon-lit diner. Vasquez spares us no detail, from the tiny hand tattoos to the individual links of their watch chains. Even his still life Wine and Fruit, while not in what is normally the most exciting of styles, is teeming with delicate touches—the bottle's label is practically a color copy of the original.
Gregg Stone may be a gringo, but his studies of Mexican city life reveal a profound interest in not just portraying but elevating the culture. His pieces are multilayered affairs that at first appear to be colorized photographs—but are actually ink, gouache and watercolor, with photos used only as references. They are at once gritty and exquisite. Stone imbues wrought-iron fencing outside a run-down restaurant with cool purple (Tortilleria la Paloma) and dirty tarmac with algae green (Last Time I Saw Her). In La Aranita, the tiled wall holding up an on-duty prostitute erupts in fiery reds, setting off her garish blouse and stark stretch pants. Stone's work is startlingly original and immediately identifiable, and it should not be missed.
And as if we're playing One of These Things Is Not Like the Other, there is Santa Ana artist Michael Maas, whose works here are said to be inspired by the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. His featureless forms are strangely organic, resembling pea pods or curled flower petals. Each and every piece looks like Bakelite worked over with rough-grit sandpaper. The colors are bright and strong, and the textures extremely deep. Maas' pieces absolutely come alive under close viewing, each brush stroke an individual wave on a molten Crayola sea. But is that an Asparagus—or an Electric Lime?
"AMERICAN BEAUTIES" AT SPACE ON SPURGEON, 210 N. SPURGEON ST., SANTA ANA, (949) 464-0105. SAT.-SUN., 1-4 P.M.; FIRST SAT. OF THE MONTH, 7-9 P.M.; AND BY APPOINTMENT. THROUGH JUNE 15.