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May 22 - July 3, 2004, at Tropico de Nopal Gallery, Echo Park

by Suvan Geer

“Ceremonies are Held,”
2004, ink on vellum.

“Charming Little Spells,”
2004, ink on vellum.

“Seven Year Itch,”
2004, ink on vellum.

The paintings and drawings of artist Diane Gamboa have always had a wonderfully powerful way with the human face and figure. Part of their appeal is their taut, but stylish self awareness, perfectly captured as a withering glance of appraisal returned to the spectator. When that commanding gaze gets wedded to bold colors and delicately luminous underpainting that turns sharply outlined shapes into sensuous, forceful skin, lips, hair and jewelry, you have some of the most arresting personalities, and dangerously stretched psyches around.

For her latest exhibition jokingly titled, Bruja–Ha (a phrase that could either be read mockingly from the Spanish as Witch-Ha, or a play on the word brouhaha), Gamboa takes her portraits of self-projected personal power into the world of magic and the occult. Perhaps to signify our passage into the mystic realm, for this show she completely avoids color giving us instead a series of graphic black and white paintings with a thick, edgy black line that carves up and decorates her figures and their spaces. That doodling line and the cartoonish world it alludes to neatly fillets the imperious power her subjects project while leaving the visual power of the works intact.

Seven Year Itch is a small ink on vellum image of a square jawed superman crowned with a stylized headdress reminiscent of a Toltec Tula Warrior. His chiseled shoulders are capped with a stylish tattoo symbolic of a panther’s bared claws while his forearm and pelvis are both decorated with knife-sharp feather shields that only partly mask the absence of certain important pieces of male erotic hardware. Ceremonies Are Held, another ink on velum drawing presents the buff body of a female in a g-string decked out in nipple tassels and loads of big jewelry. On one arm a tattoo of a dagger piercing a flaming heart seems less skin decoration than real knife piercing. Nearby a weighted martial arts baton dangles a piece of trendy patterned cloth that catches the pain-queen delicately around her waist. Thorns spill decoratively from the comb in her hair.

Gamboa’s portraits are revelatory about pretense but they are also celebratory and a little bewitched by all the trappings of ostentatious power. It is this mix of wry criticism and up-front appreciation that gives her work its good natured humor and satiric edge. She takes that humor even further in this exhibit by accompanying these paintings with an installation of objects and bottled “potions” presented in a kind of magical pharmacy or neighborhood “botanica”. While certain items she presents in this store, like a crown of thorns or the human hair topped “ghost-whacker,” are objects of occult power featured in her paintings, others ape the kind of pseudo-spiritual silliness you find at the local mall. Forbidden Lust Body Wash for washing up after impure thoughts will interest anyone with Jimmy Carter’s wandering mind. And anyone involved with someone who lies should stock up on the potent Chile-Soap mouthwash.

Gamboa has a knack for revealing how the human desire for approval expresses itself through and upon physical adornment. She’s done the same with tattoos and jewelry in the past, presenting body embellishment as a psychological weapon as well as a fashion statement. By looking now at magic and all its paraphernalia as just another way of creating personal display in order to shape the perception of the viewer, Gamboa touches on how deeply these drives for controlling outward display go. More interesting still is that with she also pulls in constructs of control and reinvention as varied as witchcraft, S and M, and the more widespread use of cosmetics, toothpaste, day spas, and body sculpting. Those connections close the gap between those obsessed with how they appear to others and the rest of us. It’s a gentle, but poignant reminder that we’re all the same under the skin. We just want to be thought of as looking good wearing it.