Sex N Death

Look at the paintings of Manuel Pardo, and you'll hear Esquivel. It's too bad Cal State Fullerton doesn't have marimba beats echoing around its Main Art Gallery. “Metaplasmic” demands not a stilted museum hush, but rather a big, ridiculous cocktail party, complete with lampshades on heads and preposterously wide ties. Sure, the drawings and paintings might be about death and loss and motherlove, but pay no attention to that! I certainly won't!

Pardo's works, almost all untitled, are almost all exactly the same. A few are black-and-white. Most are yellow and aqua. In each, a cartoon woman—based on his mother, Gladys—vamps about the canvas. She is cloned throughout the exhibit in twins, triplets and quads. The first 15 portrayals of her all even depict the same hairstyle—wispy curves in the middle of her forehead denote pincurled bangs. A Chinese braid frizzes out from the back of her head. She wears a hat like a lobster claw. She always gazes—under lidded eyes—off to her right. The only difference in each panel is the fabulous dress, and she wears each lethally. Mama had style—except for that lobster-claw hat.

So though Pardo is specifically talking sex and death (intertwined more bizarrely than usual, which we'll get to), I'm finding myself too overcome by style to care about the substance. It's rather like East LA '70s hero Patssi Valdez, who once said she painted Madonnas not as an examination of faith or purity but because she “like[d] her clothes.” Then, I was infuriated. Now, I kind of understand her point.

Well, not really.

See, it's not my fault if I can't get past Gladys' haute '60s frocks and glam bustiers and slutty pencil skirts and embroidered cone bras and wonderfully stiffened bodices rising above her creamy shoulders like kitty ears or Batman's cape. There's nothing else to see.

And while Pardo's intention went well beyond fashion—his beloved mother died in 1999, and as a guardian angel, she peeks out from the edge of some canvases, over the heads of her doppelgngers in others—he hardly spelled it out for the rest of us. There's a numerology at work in his paintings: a four, a 19 and a 25 appear in almost all, denoting their birth dates and that of his lover—which (Gerard Goodrow points out in the catalog) is the exact opposite of death. But that's it as far as narrative. We don't see Gladys being a mother or even being dead. On our own, all we can garner is a portrait of a woman as defined by her clothes. And that's less shallow than it may seem. One essayist called Pardo's mother's clothes “'50s Cuban fashion victim” and conflated them with Pardo's transvestite self-portraits. (A photo on his website reveals that Pardo, despite being gay, is decidedly not glam.)

The Gladys we get is sexy, vivid and haughty. She's of the generation that vacuumed in heels (or worked factory jobs in them)—the generation that my mother and her '60s cohorts rebelled against by eschewing makeup, razors, shampoo and bras. Beauty was reviled as inane and anti-feminist; so much as get a facial, and you'd committed suicide of the soul. (No, for real: my mom and I once fought for four days about my trip to an aesthetician.) And now, back to the future and pace Sex N the City, it's considered adorable to obsess over one's Jimmy Choos. Still, you rarely see the same resolve in the shoe-minded today as you saw in the stilettos back then. If it took so much work just to get dressed, you were hardly going to loaf the day away once you were.

Pardo's figures have Joan Crawford eyebrows (explaining the transvestitism, I suppose) slashing across the canvases almost angrily. And there's a light Mildred Pierce parallel to Gladys' own story as well; a doctor in Cuba, she worked multiple factory jobs after following her son to the States in the early '60s. She is not the retiring type: she's bespangled and extravagantly coifed and clothed. What looks terribly uncomfortable also looks enviably chic, and I feel like somewhat less a woman next to these silly but wonderful De la Rentas, knockoffs or no. Less woman? No. Actually, I feel like a slob.

The bouffants with silly bows. The handbags like space ships. Fashion victim? No. Just too much woman. Even her dangly earrings are grand: they're bigger than her pouty, well-made-up mouth.

It's that well-made-up mouth that provides the show's biggest shock. After almost 20 canvases, I looked more closely at the pendant Gladys wears. At first it looks like a globe. Within a few seconds, I was wondering: Jesus, are those lips with a penis between them? I had to go back to the paintings I'd already passed to confirm it. Penis. Lips. Absolutely.

Why? Uh . . . it could connote a healthy, open attitude. (I do think it's strange how we insist on virginizing our parents in our minds. Freud said it was because we actually want to have sex with them—in which case my own powers of repression are immense.) Could be a safe-sex warning (he did a series on the same, Safer Sex in the Motherland, saying every woman should know about “Do and Don't Blowjobs”). Sexual ambition? Maybe, if the Crawford analogy carries through. A little too close to Mommy? Yes, probably emotionally, though I doubt there's any kind of Spanking the Monkey intimation. It could just be weird.

Whatever the case—and it's not up to us to decipher, really—it's certainly a love affair, and I mean that in the most beautiful sense of mother/son love. I hope my son misses me as much when I kick it. Though I could do without him thinking of hummers when he thinks of me.

“Metaplasmic: The Recent Drawings and Paintings by Manuel Pardo” at Cal State Fullerton's Main Art Gallery, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 278-3262. Open Saturdays, 7-10 p.m. Through March 6.

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