Abstract Empathy: Irvine Fine Arts Center Offers Two Different Looks Into Our Society

Casa Padre Texas by Carlos Beltran Arechiga. Courtesy of the Irvine Fine Arts Center

The monstrosity that He Who Shall Not Be Named likes to tweet about will never be built, but it haunts and distracts us regularly, whether on the news or as the initial discussion that reveals a host of previously unspoken ugliness in our families and friends. As ICE raids are announced and never come to pass— terrorist threats intended to inflict fear—it’s time for artists to take a stand, make work about it and see if they can leech out whatever empathy might be left from an exhausted public.

“Place & Displace,” an exhibition of Carlos Beltran Arechiga’s mixed-media paintings at Irvine Fine Arts Center, addresses that fatigue, albeit in abstract form. In his “Border Angels” series, the Mexico-born American artist creates large canvases referencing areas of immigration, international—the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa—and within the United States, including the Rio Grande; Casa Padre in Brownsville, Texas; and Camino del Diablo in Arizona. 

Describing the paintings is where we run into trouble: A collage of paint (oil, enamel and acrylic), staining and added material, the canvases often resemble a sort of Dalí-esque melding of Trevor Key’s cover art for Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells album, architectural silhouettes, and backgrounds of pink and blue (water and sky). The paintings explode buildings, landmarks and landscapes into pieces, taking apart areas now associated with injustice, then leaving them to fly, float and swirl into the air. They’re occasionally identifiable as structures, sometimes people at loose ends with their environment, but mostly presented as discombobulated piles of unidentifiable objects, curves, lines and bars. I don’t believe many of the paintings would be identifiable as much of anything without their titles.

I’m sympathetic to what Arechiga is trying to do here, even if I don’t much care for the work itself. They’re not particularly attractive paintings, despite the dizzy quality of their accumulated marks and splats—with the exception of the largest painting, Border Angels-Border Field State Park, which can be read as a representation of multiple human beings stuffed behind the bars of a jail cell, and two paintings that are deconstructed human faces, Seb and Betty. These bring a level of humanity into what otherwise blends into a kind of collage soup.

The abstractions pose a problem: Why represent something so concrete—detention centers, rivers and land masses—so indistinctly? If the reality of the situation is as awful as I believe it is, by abstracting things, even with the limited but helpful accompanying notes from curator Virginia Arce on the Center’s post cards . . . isn’t it just helping an already-apathetic public from further connecting with it? By allowing a sympathetic audience to hold the situation at arm’s length, instead of bringing them into the furor, it just keeps the brain death going, when it should be calling it out.

Lxs Blancas by Eduardo Aispuro. Courtesy of the Irvine Fine Arts Center

In the smaller Gallery 1 and the lobby, our fractured society is dealt with more poetically, though still abstractly—and, I’d argue, more directly—by the dual exhibition “Time Under Tension: Eduardo Aispuro & Patricia Liverman.” 

Aispuro’s bulky works contain with their frame trapped elements trying to push through the thin surface of the canvas. The silky undulations of the white (Lxs Blancxs) and untitled chestnut canvases resemble ridges and buttes trapped under a sheet of smooth acrylic, the humps and bumps beneath indistinctly smothered by their cover. Whether they’re budding ideas burbling under the surface and awaiting their chance or cancers and tumors fighting for power under the surface of white and auburn skins, it’s a building up of the moment before the eruption.

Liverman’s evocative, even emotional, layered paintings speak to the moment afterward, when the skin splinters, the layered edges sharply slicing through the soft, once-even-tempered blackness, small razor mountains eviscerating one another. Liverman slips and stacks the tiny squares cut from old, painted canvases against one another and under the layers of new canvases, ultimately creating paintings with histories, previously unseen memories now uprooted and inserted into a new piece. Looked at geographically, even after the recent earthquakes, they’re hopeful, suggesting new worlds being built atop the old, a fresh topography breaking free. 

As a metaphor or political statement—and this is my reading, not necessarily the artist’s—the canvases work on a far deeper level: It’s an ardent argument against the closet of containment, physical and mental, a stylized representation of the ultimately life-changing/life-mangling blowback resulting from repression and a warning of what’s to come.

“Carlos Beltran Arechiga: Place & Displace” and “Time Under Tension: Eduardo Aispuro & Patricia Liverman” at Irvine Fine Arts Center, Heritage Community Park, 14321 Yale Ave., Irvine, (949) 724-6880; irvinefinearts.org. Open Mon.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Aug. 10. Free.

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