No Magic Act

Photo by Jack GouldSzyszlo—and no, I don't know how to pronounce his name—is a mysterious guy. You can tell because his deserted interiors are as bare and dank as catacombs. You can tell because he uses bizarre colors, like womb red overlaid with the jarring fluorescent pink so popular with 12-year-olds in 1985. You can tell because you can't figure out what anything in his large, freaky paintings is supposed to be.


The Peruvian Szyszlo, exhibiting at Long Beach's Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA), is respected throughout Latin America. But it's not the sunny painting most of us associate with Latin art. Don't go in expecting bright lime and tangerine or Expressionist brown girls levitating like they stepped out of the pages of a Gabriel Garca Mrquez novel. There is no loving tribute to the Virgin or the noble peasantry. You have a very limited idea of Latin art, don't you?

Instead, remember the odd blockiness of Tamayo—his scabby ochers and depressing, muted browns running in thick rivers of slathered paint. There is a lot of it, on huge canvases that float around the perimeters of a 10,000-square-foot gallery. It's overpowering, especially when you consider that the only figures in the whole thing are a few headless angels (who could also be conquistadors) apparently borrowed from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Szyszlo is a literate kind of guy.

Szyszlo was an architecture student in his youth, about a thousand years ago. There are a few eerie and lovely landscapes, which we'll get to, but the great majority of the works in this survey of his career are interiors. They're gloomy and barren: walls and steps and doors and hallways take the place of figures. And they're ancient; you can feel the generations that haven't walked through these lonely corridors. Plopped into the middle of the rooms are hulking masses that are completely indecipherable. They could be large stones, or Incan totem poles, if the Incas had totem poles; they could be half-monster, half-machine. They loom there like the obelisk in 2001, and they're as much the inanimate (yet strangely sentient) focus of the paintings as Magritte's oranges that filled whole living rooms or James' giant peach.

Abolition of Death bathes its room in a rosy, hellish nightclub light; its mass is emblazoned with what could be macaroni or amoebas or leopard spots. Really, I have no idea. And there's a lot of that in the exhibit. Literate kinds of artists, even aside from obscure Rilke references, can really be a pain in the ass.

While you're walking through the MOLAA's galleries, something like weird panpipe music drifts down from hidden speakers. There's an almost physical reaction to the sound: it sets you on edge, waiting for something spooky to happen. I'll bet Szyszlo digs that. He seems to be all about freaking you out with landscapes that are a creepy mix of Stonehenge and Area 51. One, Black Sun, features the only pretty use of color in the exhibit, with a vivid, smeary cobalt sky taking up the top four-fifths of the huge diptych. Hanging over the desert plain is a Death Star-like black object, hovering, threatening and not.

His Duino series (apparently named after Rilke's “Duino Elegies”) stars what I assume are headless angels garbed in murky orange and Barbie pink and carmine red. Strange lumps form around their middles, like gun belts or strips of ammo. They don't look like God's messengers or our guardians; they look neutral in the battles between good and evil. There is no light shining from them, and they have less personality and less substance than the indecipherable, inanimate black masses in the Waiting Room series. Why are they here? To scare us into submission?

Szyszlo (and I keep wanting to call him Zamfir, master of the pan flute) came of age after the oddities of Magritte and Dali, roughly around the time of Mrquez's Magical Realism. But he's not really an alum of either school; he belongs to a more ancient time, to the Incas of his Peru. His works are emptiness and isolation, haunted by something like innate, instinctual memories that seem to have filtered down even though the Inca civilization got wiped out pretty quickly once they discovered the joys of syphilis.

It's an overpowering exhibit, both ugly and frustrating in its obliqueness. And it makes you want more.

“Szyszlo in His Labyrinth” at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos, Long Beach, (562) 437-1689. Open Tues.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; Sun., noon-6 p.m. Through April 30. $5-$6.

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