Gwyneth Leech

Review by Don Newton
The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

Sergio Hernandez, Gwyneth Leech, Poli Marichal, John Paul Thornton, and Mark Vallen.
Opened January 7th at the Ave. 50 Studio (131 N. Ave. 50 in Highland Park).

Unfortunately, this show is about to close (February 6) but if you can make it…

The Avenue 50 Studio is a bare storefront-size room in one half of an old building next to the new tracks of the Gold Line. The exhibit is arranged (unsurprisingly) on 3 of the 4 walls, presenting an initial aspect of passivity, which the subject matter immediately begins to contradict.

The only exception to the painterly, wall-mounted artwork is Poli Marichal's disturbing "Elegy to Scheharazade," an installation piece: a rug mounted on a bloody, muslin-covered table, and strewn with severed heads. On the rug itself, a red form of a woman is painted, with one of the stylized heads lying on her stomach. The rest of the heads are piled at the foot of the table on a bloody cloth, and it feels like the blood will get on your shoes unless you're very careful. Behind this, there are several small paper images of the "eye of Fatima," a traditional Muslim design with mottoes on each: "Freedom to Study," "Freedom to Love," "Equal Rights as Men," "Freedom of Movement," "Freedom of Speech." She has three more paintings on a facing wall, each of them dealing with a religious theme interspersed with politics.

Directly behind Marichal's installation, a large acrylic painting on unstretched canvas shows camouflaged soldiers with automatic weapons occupying a "First National Bank" building. Through the window behind them, a tank aims its cannon straight at the viewer while a helicopter hovers in a dramatic sunset. The premises of the bank are strewn with a Coke can, a Kentucky Fried Chicken foam cup, and a crumpled pack of Marlboros. Mark Vallen, the painter, told me that these two soldiers -- who remind me of the Russian soldiers occupying Chechnya -- had actually appeared in Soldier of Fortune magazine. One of the soldiers has a woman next to him whose nail-polished hand rests on his shoulder. To complete the scene (titled "A People Under Command"): a poster of Rambo with a huge rocket launcher, and a news-stand holding USA Today with Reagan's face on the front page. Vallen derived the title of the painting (1985) from a stanza of a song on Christian TV, which refers to "God's Army." He has three smaller pieces on an adjoining wall, one of them an image of a young Muslim woman, which was used as a poster to counter racist attacks after 9-11.

Right away, you know politics is on the agenda. Mark Vallen is also the curator of the show, and in his Curatorial Statement, refers to our "conservative times when dissenting opinions are frowned upon." Instead of going along with the current, he says that "remaining silent in a period of rising religious and political fundamentalism is unimaginable." And the identification of politics and religion is not confined to Vallen's opinions. All of the artists in this exhibition have wrestled with this theme.

Gwyneth Leech, for example, shows her 14 Stations of the Cross (Christ's Passion Re-Imagined in a New Era of Torture, Terror, and Tragedy"). These are small (10x10 inch) oil sketches made for a church in Norwalk, Connecticut. Her interpretations of Christ's path to crucifixion use very contemporary references to heighten the pathos of the journey: a naked Christ is set upon by vicious dogs, as captured insurgents have been at Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq; Guantanamo is invoked when Christ is presented to the judges in an orange jumpsuit, with his arms bound; razor wire surrounds the cross and protects the occupying army from the population in the streets; torture and humiliation of captives, such as occurs in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, is echoed in Christ's suffering. Ms. Leech mentions (in her notes to the series) the "seeming deluge of images of grief in the press -- the grief of families around the world who have lost loved ones to war and terrorist attacks." One of her pictures shows weeping Iraqi women joined at the foot of the cross by an American father and his son, grieving over the loss of a family member. As she painted and showed these images to the congregation in Connecticut, there were very strong reactions on the part of the local population... she was repeatedly attacked in the press for her mixing of politics in with traditional religion.

Sergio Hernandez is a veteran of the Chicano movement and one-time cartoonist and illustrator for the famous Con Safos magazine. His two paintings in the show go deeply into the tangled connection between politics and art. "Church, Help Our People" shows chained mestizo worshippers clinging to a stone-faced crucifix, the bearded face on the cross wearing a bishop's hat (or conquistador's?) and surmounted by dollar signs for a motto. A pan full of gold coins at the foot of the cross, refers (he says) to the "millions in resources the church has amassed." This painting was inspired by the successful protests led by Catolicos por La Raza in 1970, demanding more resources for poorer parishes in Los Angeles. "The Last Cachetada (The Last Slap)" is a riveting image of a frozen moment: a shirtless man, tattooed with the Virgin of Guadalupe on his back, raises his right hand to strike a young woman holding a crying child. He holds a bottle of beer in his left hand, and stands in front of a saloon, next to a graffiti'd wall. Inside the door of the bar, the flames of evil can be seen.

John Paul Thornton's work falls more toward the religious side of the equation, with three paintings of views from South Asia of typical scenes, a wedding at the bank of a river, a funeral ceremony on the Ganges, and a "Seeker" in red robe against an impressionistic background. His artistic experience includes a nationwide campaign, based on hundreds of portraits he painted, to popularize the search for missing persons, which he began when one of his students disappeared.

All of these paintings are figurative, only Poli Marichal's moving away from strictly "realistic" presentations of scenes and images. During an Artists' Forum discussion on January 12, Mark Vallen put forward his commitment to realism as opposed to abstraction, basing his philosophical approach on a politics of inclusion and popularization, which he feels is now outside the mainstream of U.S. art. All of the artists presented slides at the forum, as well as their aesthetic and philosophical ideas, making this a very satisfying contribution to the intellectual depth of the exhibition.

At a time when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have repeatedly made outrageous political statements based on their fundamentalist beliefs, and when the President of the United States publicly prays before assembled ranks of military spectators, it is refreshing and encouraging to see artists taking on the old American warning not to "talk about religion and politics," and breaking free of the brainwash.