New Latin American Artists Shine Unevenly at Saltfineart’s ‘Young Bloods’ Show

“Young Bloods” at saltfineart is curators Suzanne Walsh and Carla Tesak Arzente’s first attempt at combining their RAWsalt division artists (less expensive, often local, smaller pieces) from the larger, Latin contemporary work they specialize in. Putting all of these artists together in one exhibition creates an interesting, but not seamless, show, and while there’s no unifying theme but their youth, the end result is some intriguing eye candy, love and critique of pop culture, and alienation, as well as some exciting experimentation that I don’t think is ready for prime time.

Surrounded by gang culture in El Salvador, artist Luis Cornejo’s mother kept him home, blanketing him with books and magazines, from which he absorbed American low culture. That influenced the messy blend of fashion models and cartoon characters in his two canvases, Sin Título and There Is Nobody Around. Both feature the same woman—next to an early version of Woody Woodpecker in the former and Popeye in the latter—amid a background of blue skies and clouds, sprinklings of jizzy pink paint coagulating on her clothing. The invasion of the model’s personal space, the cartoon’s gawking, and the title of the second painting can be viewed as a mixtape of distasteful American values, not the least of which is the male admiration of beauty and the rape-y harassment that often comes with it.

Andriy Halashyn, a Ukrainian painter living in Costa Rica, chooses his pop culture better than Cornejo and embraces surrealism more expertly, his accomplished visuals and large oil paintings offering more thorough broadsides. Tongue pressed firmly in cheek, his cynical vision presents a world that’s corrupt, nonsensical and thoughtless, as ridiculous fashion models primp, fight and play Pokémon Go while scenes of natural disasters and devastation play out around them. The demolished homes, rotting automobiles and ruined furniture is suggested with a few strokes, as if already diminished in the minds of the vacuous, posing women, the horrific events literally behind them.

The concealed faces in Colombian mixed-media artist Johan Barrios’ flawless visions of alienation may remind you of the creepy girl hiding behind her hair in Ringu (especially in the graphite and watercolor Untitled), but there’s more than just weirdness for weirdness’ sake going on here. There’s a familiar humanity in Barrios’ work that makes you feel at home, even when the images resemble snapshots from a dream landscape. Houseplants hide the face and legs of a woman lying on the floor in Adyacente. I can’t tell whether she has a bad back and chose a strange place to lie down, loves nature or is dead, but it brings more of a smile and less of an unsettled Japanese horror feeling than some of his other images.

In his oil painting Desvelo, a woman stands against a wall, arms at her side, as a blanket falls from the sky, its wrinkles and folds painstakingly rendered, a divine gift sent to protect her from having to see the awfulness of the world. The gender of the moribund person with a sheet covering their head is as obscured as the face in a second Untitled graphite and watercolor, three crows hovering over their head, with the photo-realistic image eliciting the disconcerted feeling of a nightmare forgotten on waking, yet still lurking around in the back of your brain.

Long Beach artist Catherine Kaleel’s oil paintings of childhood toys and electronic equipment is the kind of Pop Art work that either transports you to childhood or sends your eyes rolling to hipster heaven, but her love of the items pictured—a Sony Walkman, an Atari 2600 console, a Mego 2XL Robot—isn’t a crass pose; the items are painted with a sincerity and a desire for preservation that I found heart-warming. Painted on wood panels that occasionally offer their light grain as background, the discarded items pop from the surface, finding a new home right in your memory.

In contrast, Shayne Murphy’s chilly, elegant oil and graphite on panel portraits hold you at arm’s length, his models in contemplation against an abstract or blank landscape. Murphy uses color in unusual ways: faces painted a Hellboy blood red; a river poking through steely gray mountains is a strip of bright primary blue; a block of yellow painted at a model’s spine looks like an egg yolk back brace. A spatter of graphite heightens the contemplative mood of the image, suggesting imminent nirvana and dissolution. It asks you to appreciate the skill behind it, and then, unfortunately, it orders you to move on before you can get emotionally involved.

While I would have liked the youthful artists to have drawn more blood than they do—philosophically, politically and artistically—they are, after all, still young and forming their way of looking at the world. A handful, like Barrios and Halashyn, are hitting it right where they should, while the remaining—including several I haven’t mentioned—are still in process and haven’t fully defined their voices and visions. Brava to Walsh and Arzente for having the good taste and aesthetics to give them the space to grow.

“Young Bloods” at saltfineart latin contemporary, 346 N. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-5554; Open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Mon., by appointment. Through May 28. Free.

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