It's the rare moment when I attend an exhibition and fall in love, but after the exhilarating kiss of not one, but two perfect exhibitions, I'm feeling damn lucky: I talked about Orange County Museum of Art's Diebenkorn exhibition a couple of weeks back, and now there's the thrilling "Victor Hugo Zayas: Mi Obra" at Laguna Art Museum.
Focused on work ("obra") that Mexican-American painter and sculptor Zayas created over the past two decades, guest curator Gregorio Luke presents an exciting introduction to an artist with whom everyone should become acquainted. The exhibition is a bit like stepping into a time machine: Zayas embraces diverse influences and art movements; knows his history; and, using that knowledge, travels seamlessly between past and present. Never a direct quote, just a nod here, a lesson learned there, and for a moment, we're transported: The muted, aged browns and greens of Zayas' Mexican pastoral Study, Merida (1992) would look right at home next to many of J.M.W. Turner's Romantic landscapes, while just steps away, 2008's Sal Si Puedes is reminiscent of Whistler's Modernist canvases.
We're in Impressionist territory with thick, sculpted gobs of oil paint reproducing the vibrancy and texture of flowers and stems tightly contained in their vase in Zayas' Still Life (2003), but the stark background highlights their slow death as they begin shedding petals. In the similarly titled Still Life (also from 2003), the vase disappears amid a Rembrandt chiaroscuro, the flowers illuminating the darkness with bright daubs and swirls, as though a school of fish in a midair feeding frenzy. (That turmoil is further echoed in the violent storm depicted in Costa Azul y Rojo, with its swirls of dark blue and white waves surrounding a bloody froth at the bottom of the picture.) There's a cave-painting quality to the quietly sleeping animal in Vaca (2005), as a dark, feral creature sketched in lines and shadows hovers behind it. Is the black figure about to attack, or is the sleeper—which looks a lot more like a dog to me than a cow—dreaming of what life would be like if it were a carnivore looking for prey instead of a happily dozing herbivore?
"Victor Hugo Zayas: Mi Obra" at Laguna Art Museum, www.lagunartmuseum.org. Open Mon.-Tues. Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through April 29. $5-$7; children younger than 12, free.
In Zayas' sharp paintings of LA city life are details instantly recognizable to Southern Californians: the crisscross gridded jet streams in 2011's L.A.X.; skyscrapers coated in a poisonous, sulfurous, yellow pollution (L.A. Scape, 2003); the clouds above and behind the skeletons of high-rise buildings under construction, making them resemble a city floating in the sky. His nightscapes La Vista Nocturna (2006) and East L.A. (2004) are simply breathtaking, further confirming the Rembrandt connection, but 1993's East L.A. resembles Van Gogh, with Zayas' version of Starry Night giving us nighttime traffic, electrical towers and street lamps, instead of stars. For a Zen moment, examine the four sets of triptychs that comprise the very modern L.A. River (2011) paintings partially covering one of the gallery walls. Listen to the soft, steady roar of the air conditioning overhead; that purely unintentional soundtrack sounds similar to water rushing from one place (or series of panels) to another.
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If Picasso had loved women, his paintings might have looked as Zayas' vaguely cubist Reposo (Movement Series #7) does. The resting female figure, posed for the artist, shifts ever so slightly, the movement represented via different color lines. We're drawn to the red of her eyes and features, with Zayas' love of landscape painting the shift of her body as a lush green, as though her breasts, arm and jawline were a welcoming pasture to rest in. Her legs, kept tight to the body, preserving at least a modicum of her modesty, a silent rebuke to the broken, eviscerated figures splayed across the Spanish artist's canvases. Likewise, Zayas' 1991 Anne, nude is not an artist fetishizing a model. The subject stands solid, arms above her head, but she loses none of her power: Hands disappearing up under the frame, she looks strong enough to bring the whole picture crashing down. Pygmalion's statue made flesh.
Zayas' respect for the body informs the final (and newest work) in the exhibition: sculptures made from shredded guns, secured from an LAPD buy-back program. Zayas is quoted as saying he could see faces in the welded gun remnants during the process of sculpting the pieces. While I couldn't see faces—I saw figures (LAPD Sculpture Series #7), a vase of gun flowers (LAPD Sculpture Series #13), Transformers and even those dangerous metal octopi from The Matrix movies (LAPD Sculpture Series #14)—Zayas' creation of something human(e) from something destructive, that better way of living, that hope, is his true Obra.
This review appeared in print as "Obra of Art: The Laguna Art Museum hosts a perfect exhibition on painter/sculptor Victor Hugo Zayas."