‘Victor Hugo Zayas: The River Paintings’ Wows at MOLAA

Luis Ernesto Zavala’s insightful short film, accompanying the Museum of Latin American Art’s equally solid solo exhibition, “Victor Hugo Zayas: The River Paintings,” presents Zayas casually walking through the shallow water of the Los Angeles River. A few miles from his home, the vast gray concrete walls keep the waterway in check as the surrounding vegetation hides it away from those not purposefully looking for it. Zayas talks about the solace the river provides him, with idyllic images of cuffed pants and bare feet, and the sounds of running water reinforce his appreciation of the nearly invisible natural refuge hidden amid the traffic and pollution.

Not that his paintings offer that same comfort: In contrast to the well-lit, even pastoral shots in Zavala’s film, Zayas’ paintings—collected by curator Edward Hayes—are dark and brooding, the brown and black scumbling often obscuring intelligibility, as if Zayas is begrudgingly showing us what he loves but doesn’t want us to invade his territory. In other work—primarily the “Victor Hugo Zayas: Mi Obra” exhibition at Laguna Art Museum (LAM) four years ago—the focus was on the ethereality of water. While there are many pictures featuring that element here—including a handful from that LAM show—Zayas’ latest feels more interested in the solidity of the river’s surroundings. In L.A. River 13 (2015), the stray skeletal branch reaches toward the expansive electrical towers and power lines across the riverbed, but at the forefront of the canvas are leafy greens, sickly yellows and grays.

The gradations in the color of leaves—drought conditions having muted the vividness of the plants quite drastically in some pictures—also suggest the inevitable motion when hit by the white foam of the river water or the shift, rustle and blur of foliage moved by the wind. A quick glance at the paintings from the side reveals the surface of a topographical map: Zayas’ representations are alive, liquid and rushing. He doesn’t delicately apply his color so much as lather it on with a paint knife; the ridges and thick lines are a lush, churning carpet of impasto.

The river paintings count for only about half of the 40-plus pieces on display, with more than a few oils bleeding into the artist’s “Grid Series,” including an overhead view of Los Angeles streets that resembles a lattice of pick-up-stick streets haphazardly dropped onto a gloomy urban landscape (Grid Series #18). The canvases are a moving still life of urbania seen from a distance, soothing and majestic in their scope. Occasionally venturing from the easily identifiable representation to more abstract, Diebenkorn-like sharp lines, 45-degree angles and shifting colors, some of the canvases are less recognizable as streets than as ship’s sails billowing in the wind (Grid Series #24 and Grid Series #25).

With the numerous drawings and watercolors on display, the sketches on napkins and in notebooks, curator Hayes offers us insight into the process of Zayas’ work, from the initial inspiration to the first scribbles or brushstrokes while fleshing out ideas to the final painted canvas. Dense lines try to claw their way out of the artist’s thin, self-imposed frame line, painted onto a napkin (Grid Series Napkin Drawing, 2012); the watercolor L.A. River/ Grid Series neatly captures the sulfurous haze hanging above the city’s streets and buildings; the washed-out foliage on an ink sketch of a leafless tree, isolated within another thin frame (L.A. River Sketchbook, 2014), reads like a modern-day Goya.

It’s Zayas’ “Astrophysiological Structure (Self-Portrait)” series of sculptures, however, that are the welcome surprise here. Looking through a telescope at the night sky, in a part of Mexico untouched by light pollution, the artist sketched constellations, and then built 3D representations of the drawings. The end result, seen as a celebration of the celestial (as well as the corporeal physicality of the artist), are simple yet wondrously elegant: The six silver-painted metal poles soldered together in Astrophysiological Structure No. 18 (Self-Portrait), bolted to the gallery entrance hall, explode out at the viewer, shadows from the lights above creating a subtle anarchist “A” on the canvas of the wall behind it; Astrophysiological Structure No. 13 (Self-Portrait)‘s gray metal stands upright, trapped by its framing parameters; the black metal in Astrophysiological Structure No. 17 (Self-Portrait) suggests a figure with hands extended, reaching to the sky. The most “star”-like of the pieces—Astrophysiological Structure No. 12 (Self-Portrait) and Astrophysiological Structure No. 15 (Self-Portrait)—are all rectangles, points and lines, as if you were able to look at the celestial body from every angle at once.

Taken at face value as a self-portrait—with Zayas as an artist who embraces the chaotic, letting his unruly talent take him wherever it leads, while embracing a variety of inspirations both on the ground and in the heavens—his captivating sculptures reveal aspects of the man behind the artist better than any painting could.

“Victor Hugo Zayas: The River Paintings” at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-1689; www.molaa.org. Open Wed.-Thurs. & Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through Feb. 7. $7-$10; children younger than 12, free; everyone every Sun., free.

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