Flames leaping from a car on a freeway against backdrop of sunsets and palm trees is an image that encapsulates LA’s Arcadian dystopia. It is a picture specifically associated with the art of Carlos Almaraz (1941-1989). His premature death from AIDS in 1989 truncated the evolution of his work and his popular, critically appreciated paintings have not been shown very much since then. The survey at LACMA, Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz, introduces his work to a new audience and refreshes the memories of friends and fans.
Carlos Almaraz, "Sunset Crash," 1982
© Carlos Almaraz Estate
Photo courtesy the Collection of Cheech Marin
Almaraz’s work was first shown at LACMA in 1974 when he was a founding member of Los Four, a collective of Chicano artists that also included Frank Romero, Gilbert Luján and Robert de la Rocha. (That show was organized by Jane Livingston at LACMA with a companion show by Hal Glicksman as director of UC Irvine.)
Though born in Mexico, Almaraz lived in Chicago and New York before returning to LA to complete studies at Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design). His initial artistic involvement was part of a larger political awareness born of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers struggles.
Carlos Almaraz, "Longo Crash," 1982
© Carlos Almaraz Estate
Photo © Museum Associtaes/LACMA, by Robert Wedemeyer
He created politically-oriented graphics but this exhibition is concentrated on the last decade of his life when he devoted himself mainly to painting. Using the charged colors of Mexican cultures and the naturally exotic landscape of LA, Almaraz painted in a brushy, neo-expressionist style that was being embraced by artists in the early 1980s.
Carlos Almaraz, "Echo Park Bridge at Night," 1989
© Carlos Almaraz Estate
Photo by Isabella McGrath
During that period, Almaraz frequently painted his Echo Park neighborhood with an intimacy that characterizes Monet’s gardens at Giverny. His masterly "Echo Park Lake" (1982) was executed as a single four-panel work but the individual pieces had been dispersed since his death. They have been reunited here for the first time since then. The light shimmering on the dark water, the paddle boats and lily pads, evoke a soft-focus romance enhanced by the presence of a small figures of a bride and groom.
Carlos Almaraz, "Crash in Phthalo Green," 1984
© The Carlos Almaraz Estate
Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA
Magicians, masks and erotic scenes are recurrent but nothing compares to his exploding, fiery cars. One of the most powerful works, "Crash in Phthalo Green" (1984), was selected from the museum’s collection by LACMA director Michael Govan to hang in his own office. Curator Howard Fox mounted an assortment of the crashes on a single wall to great effect. Using the stretched rectangular format that Ed Ruscha has used to capture the horizontality of the LA landscape, Almaraz paints cars colliding, flying off guardrails, slicing through pastel light or under starry skies. This triumphant synthesis of violence and beauty is Almaraz at his best.
The exhibition is another example of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative LA/LA illuminating this city’s relationships with Latin American culture. It continues through December 3.
Also on view is Alejandro Iñárritu’s much praised Carne y Arena, (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible) a virtual reality installation by the Oscar-winning director of The Revenent made with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.
Design by Neil Kellerhouse
It can be seen only by one individual at time. The experience begins with sitting in a sterile waiting room littered with shoes and other debris found along the border between the US and Mexico. After you remove your own shoes, a red light and alarm alert you to enter a darkened room with a dirt floor. After you put on the backpack and VR headset, you are immersed in the experience of standing in the middle of the desert, walking with a handful of other aspiring immigrants until the lights of an overhead helicopter and SUVs cause the group to be detained for questioning and detention. The shouting in Spanish and English is intense, intimidating. When it is over, dawn breaks on the horizon. Though based on the stories of actual immigrants, all chronicled in a subsequent gallery, I didn’t find it more emotionally powerful than a traditional narrative film but it does signal the advent of what seems to be an inevitable trend in future filmmaking. It is quite an experience and I recommend trying to get in. Though entry is sold out, more tickets will be released in September. To be added to the list, go to http://www.lacma.org/carne-y-arena#email-notifications.