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Through June 20, 2009 at Tasende Gallery, West Hollywood

by Ray Zone

"Futuristic Architects," 2008, oil
on canvas, 55 1/8 x 31 inches.

"Dodgers," 2008, oil on
canvas, 78 3/4 by 78 3/4".

"The Circus," 2007,
marble, 21 x 18 x 23".

“Ceremonia,” 2009, charcoal, pastel
and acrylic on canvas, 200 x 200 cm.

"Marlene," 2008, oil
on canvas, 78 x 78".

With an exhibition titled “XX Century Parade” occurring simultaneously in three different cities--New York, Dallas and Los Angeles--the sculptures and paintings of Armando Romero are given wide visibility. Romero is a Mexican artist who draws on a diverse repertoire for his inspiration, which anarchically melds science, film, and literature with popular culture references to wrestling, the circus and comic books.

In the 1980s, when Romero was an adolescent, there was still a cultural divide between “lowbrow” art--embodied by comics, hot rods and rock ‘n roll--and the “highbrow” world of fine art. That “unbridgeable gulf” has long since been spanned. You could say that popular culture won the war. After all, post-modern artists, using such tactics as appropriation, foreshadowed one big cultural parking structure. But, more than anything, it has been the internet, serving up all the products of human history in a great electronic soup, that has provided the cultural leveling along with instructions for navigating the multilevel densities of our global condition.

Romero’s strategy is to make subversive use of a device from the Colorforms Deluxe Playsets, a classic children’s game originated in 1951 which is still produced. The Colorforms Playsets use a large background image as a plate to which individual plastic stickers  of characters and objects, bearing a white outline, are affixed and moved around interactively.

Using a somber color palette, Romero creates a background plate in the manner of a classic oil painting. Juxtaposing styles, the apparent “sticker” image is a simple graphic in primary color or a deft line art cartoon adhered on top of the sober background. The effect is ridiculously madcap, but with a satirical point.

Take the vertically oriented painting titled “Futuristic Architects,” as an example. The background painting is quite familiar from art history. A throng of workmen in front of a scaffolding unveil an architectural drawing of the structure to some high church luminary, perhaps the Catholic Pope. This classic image is punctuated by two absurdly modern elements. The first is the presence of a blue “Goodyear” blimp off in the aerial distance. The second is a thought balloon hovering above the head of the Pope wherein a blazing pink castle labeled “Disneyland” is placed.

The workman directly in front of the Pope bears a great likeness to Leonardo da Vinci who, as you will recall, suffered house arrest at the hands of the church for his futuristic thinking and who actually made drawings of flying machines. The pink Disneyland castle also bears atavistic witness to the uses of history that commercialism has made. The thought balloon and the word balloon are aesthetic conventions of the comic strip. Romero regards them as powerful satirical devices, incorporating them in his paintings as a matter of course. They help drive his ironic commentary.

In his sculptures Romero achieves the feeling of human presence that generates empathy in addition to satire. “Tres Tristes Tigres” (Three Sad Tigers), for example, depicts three nude men wearing Mexican wrestler’s masks standing at attention. But the proud poses of the men and the ferocity of the masks are belied by the aged bodies whose flesh sags with time; these are not the bodies of youth. There is real heart in such aged flesh aspiring to the exertions of youth.

Similarly, the sculpture “Thinking of a Joke” depicts a rotund sitting figure in alabaster that playfully melds a sly moral temper to patent levity and absurdity. It is almost a cartoon in its roundness, completed by a colorful toy ball at its feet. Here is a moonfaced boy or man, fixed in white stone, with head upraised and perpetually attempting to think up a jest. The bright yellow and red ball at his feet belies the high seriousness of presentation, a vulnerability couched in permanence.

The playfulness of Romero’s work is deceptive. There is whimsy in the aggregate piling on of unlikely images. But there is quietly uncanny thought whose implicit seriousness will sneak up on you.