How a South Central artist processes generational trauma through collage

Written by

This week’s art picks include an artist who connects his parent’s past trauma to his own L.A. childhood, a under-known surrealist artist who paints ghostly orbs and leering animals, and an exhibition of paintings made while recovering from COVID-19. 

Elmer Guevara at Residency Art

A new series of figurative paintings and drawings by LA-native Elmer Guevara is on view at Residency Art in Inglewood. Guevara’s parents fled El Salvador for Los Angeles in the 1980s, a decade before the artist was born, and the exhibition muses on what inherited traumas influenced the artist himself amid his Angeleno childhood. Across the paintings, ghostly imprints and shadows imply a resurfacing of past memories, while Lakers jerseys and McDonalds boxes plant the work in the present. In several pieces, painted imagery climbs across the figure’s arms, like tattoos that hold montages of past formative memories. “Passed onto Him” is a portrait of the artist’s parents holding young Guevara as a swaddled baby. The mother’s arm in the foreground is laced with imagery from her past — a burning village, portraits of loved ones — that quite literally passes to her child through her touch (we see the same imagery painted across the baby’s plum leg). While at times a bit literal, Guevara’s layered and collaged paintings are embedded with emotional resonance and poignantly speak to the generational legacies that influence us all. 

Elmer Guevara, “Mi Orgullo,” installation view. Image courtesy of the artist and Residency Art.

In thinking about his family history, Guevara wanted to find visual representation for the ways that memories resurface in unexpected ways. 

In an email to me, Guevara explained how proud he is of his parents, and their journey to LA in which they adapted from their rural home to an urban inner city. He explained, “[They gave] me the opportunity to set goals and realistically have an opportunity to accomplish them. I feel that these narratives relate to other families, and I take the task to honor them as a proud son.” Guevara said that through his unique collage techniques, his task was to “grasp and visually translate the subject of inherited trauma.” Guevara continued: “The mystery of genetics and what you inherit from your parents, in my situation, with their experience of living through war is my inspiration to analyze my psychology and behaviors with additions to my upbringing in South Central.” 

On view: January 21–March 6, 2021

Clarence Holbrook Carter at Various Small Fires

Clarence Holbrook Carter, “Over and Above No. 15,” 1964. Oil on canvas, 31 x 53 1/4 inches. Image courtesy the estate of Clarence Holbrook Carter and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Seoul.

Bluntly titled “American Surrealist,” a solo show by Clarence Holbrook Carter (1904-2000) at Various Small Fires lives up to this moniker. While the press release compares Carter to luminaries like Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico, Carter’s work is relatively unknown, and it was a surprise for me to discover. The show pulls from various periods of the artist’s work, the oldest painting in the show, a graceful portrait of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot,” dates back to 1927. Even in this early work, the artist gives the Lady a green halo floating above her face as if exuding some kind of aura, infusing her with a ghostly presence. In the 1970s that aura becomes flattened into an egg-like orb that floats elegantly across various landscapes like sci-fi visions. Later, in the work from the 1980s and 1990s, those orbs get a bit more Magritte with flattened compositions that feature the orb floating over objects or peer into architectural spaces through open windows. Perhaps most captivating in the show is the “Over and Above” series from the 1960s which, in a departure, feature ominous animals floating above flat planes of color, as if peering over a tall wall — rats with beady red eyes, and tarantulas with fangs out and hairy legs descending loom above, frozen in place. At their large scale, the paintings at first appear menacing, though soon make way for a more tender confrontation — as if as viewers we are able to face our fears head on, and come out unscathed. Whether portraits, animals, or ghostly orbs, this confrontation of our inner selves is at the crux of Carter’s surreal manifestations. 

On view: January 23–February 26, 2021

Clarence Holbrook Carter “Eschatos,” 1974. Oil on canvas, 42 x 60 inches. Image courtesy the estate of Clarence Holbrook Carter and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Seoul.

Richard Tuttle at David Kordansky 

Richard Tuttle, “Unlikely Head,” 2020. Plywood, spray paint, wood glue, and nails. 25 x 18 1/2 x 2 inches. Image courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Jeff McLane.

As a young art student, when I first came across Richard Tuttle’s work (particularly his “Wire Pieces” that consist of a thin piece of wire next to two delicate pencil markings applied directly on the wall), I remember thinking, “you can do that?” Tuttle has always been a boundary pusher, creating evocative works with minimal moves, and expanding the definition of what constitutes an art material. David Kordansky Gallery is currently exhibiting the artist for the first time and touts him as “one of the most representative American artists of the postwar period.” On view at the gallery are a series of new abstract plywood forms that are embellished with spray painted marks. The works each include inset stair-step forms that interrupt their surfaces, and jagged cuts and wood splinters are left rawly exposed. Each work is titled after a “head” — “Child Rearing Head,” “Sticky Head,” “What is it About Head” — and Tuttle notably created these works in 2020 while recovering from COVID-19. And in the classic Tuttle way, through his minimal moves and poetic titles, these raw-edged wood forms might become pathways towards a deeper understanding of the human psyche.  

On view: January 23–March 6, 2021