COLA Individual Artist Fellowship and Exhibition
Los Angeles Municipal Gallery at Barnsdall Art Park
George Lawson, George Lawson Gallery, San Francisco, California
In her ongoing series, Make ‘Em All Mexican (MEAM), Los Angeles-based artist Linda Vallejo deploys a simple visual strategy (painting things brown) in the service of an anything-but-simple feat of social engineering: calling to historical task an entire category of cultural presumption. Her art is political and activist, but without the subordination of aesthetic to rhetoric that can be typical of the genre. This means she is an artist first and a soap-boxer some distant second. Vallejo is telling a vernacular joke, meant ostensibly for an insider Chicano audience, yet one that plays as well in Stockholm as in Fresno. Initially her audience is the art world, but ultimately the world at large.
Vallejo leverages a topical set of references, drawing from deep history and yesterday’s papers, but always with a view towards her imagery’s lasting shelf life. She stays critical. That she does this with a sense of humor does not detract from the seriousness of her intent. Her art is fundamentally transformative, and the means of her transformation is color. She uses brown the way Yves Klein, James Lee Byars, and Lita Albuquerque use blue—as a catalyst for change and spiritual alchemy. The statuary, props, books, web images, and cultural detritus that Vallejo repurposes have already gone through one transformation before she starts in on them, cascading through generations of reproduction from iconic status to icons of kitsch. In spite of being reduced to nostalgia, however, these totems, from the Winged Victory of Samothrace to Grant Wood’s American Gothic, haven’t shed their association with the dominant powers that produced them. They haven’t grown less white. That is not until, as if responding to a brown bat signal projected on a white cloud, Vallejo intercedes.
Linda Vallejo can’t just make a statue and then paint it; she has to go out and find it. Her use of found (or found out, since the stereotypes she ousts are so well entrenched) objects is key to her method. Discovery is the first step to recovery—both literally as in pulling out of the junk pile and re-covering with a coat of paint, and figuratively as in instigating a healing process. Key then also is her grounding in the tradition and means of painting, in spite of her use of assemblage, appropriation and text, key because of how well she understands painting’s capacity to humanize. As the MEAM series matures, as it gets past the joke, which is essentially a fulcrum, and into the incredibly long lever that is Vallejo’s imagination, the seemingly inexhaustible variations on the theme manifest themselves as a pliant language and a tool for examining the function of art in our culture. Vallejo asks questions about the source of an image’s power, and the role images play in securing and perpetuating social hierarchies.
Whether she is appliquéing the Santa Maria to slip complacently under someone’s rear, or tattooing the rear of the Venus de Milo, whether she is wrapping china dolls in Serape material or shrink-wrapping Mickey Mouse in Coppertone vinyl, whether she is silk screening, spray painting, gold leafing or enameling this cultural icon or the next, she is asking what if…what if you wandered out tomorrow evening and the northern star had shifted south, and the constellations in the pantheon sky of art history set a whole new course charted by a whole new set of navigators? What if instead of all roads leading to Rome, they led to Mexico City?