A Major Debut and a Pair of Retrospectives at LBMA

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Long Beach Museum of Art had an official opening last evening for one of the best exhibitions of the year, featuring three artists at various stages of their careers. Substantial selections of their work will be up for view for the remainder of the year, with their shows all simultaneously closing at the end of the first week of 2019. Two of the artists, Narcisso Martinez and Jane Brucker, already had had their shows available for public viewing in the previous two weeks, but last night – as the first storm of the rainy season sneaked up on Southern California — John Sonsini’s portaits of day laborers officially opened, too, and every gallery of the museum is now filled with work that deserves your immediate attention.

The youngest artist, in particular, confronts us with a fact that Marxist theory won’t let us ignore, no matter how much we might want to pretend otherwise: “One cannot tell from the taste of the oats the conditions under which it was grown.” Working with the very materials handled and hauled by hands who have done the labor to bring us the food we eat, Martinez portrays field workers caught in the nets of harvest’s toil. It is important to emphasize that Martinez does not sentimentalize their exploitation. Regardless of whether their faces are enclosed by an improvised “hazmat” suit of baseball cap and bandana, or whether we can see them eating their midday meal, sitting on the ground at the end of a row, these individuals radiate a defiant optimism.

Some of the work on exhibit at LBMA by Martinez has been shown at other venues in recent months. Three large portraits. done in charcoal, of women, including one of his mother, have been on view at a gallery at CSULB, where Martinez received his MFA last spring, as well as at the cultural center of Mexico’s embassy across the street from MacArthur Park two months ago. Using his signature canvas material of “reclaimed produce cardboard,” Martinez’s newest piece, “Always Fresh,” is on the scale of a mural (doing a quick foot shuffle, I estimate it to be just shy of 20 feet in length; as to its height, my guess is around six feet). Its central figure is framed within an oval, as if to imprint upon the viewer’s privilege of consumption a medallion commemorating the anonymity through which the pleasures of hunger are sated. On the right side of this oval, workers have paused to eat a meal themselves, while on the left they are at work sorting the gathered harvest.

One particular detail stands out in Martinez’s use of cardboard that foregrounds the elusiveness of the economic transmission. Flattened out, the cardboard boxes retain the gaps and slots that enable the loaded boxes to be lifted and stacked for shipping, as well as to provide some aeration for the bottom layers of produce. In their literal figuration, these openings also figuratively serve as lenses to our own aporias, the blank spaces of our knowledge of the working conditions of this absolutely necessary labor.

The gap between labor, in which the dispossessed give of themselves with little remuneration, and those who come into possession of the harvest, is emphasized by the presentation of fruits and vegetables in the form of small canvases with images of various kinds of apples, as well as very small canvases (perhaps two inches by two inches) of blueberries. There is no sense that a flngerprint of any sort can be found on this produce. “Always Fresh,” in this case, is meant to ironically mimic the marketing erasure of those who make the most profit from the delivery of the food.

In this exhibition, we are fortunate to be given a chance to witness the emergence of a major new artist. At some point in the next decade, you will find Martinez’s work being exhibited alongside the work of such L.A.-based artists as Mark Bradford, whose “Pickett’s Charge” at the Hirschhorn is one of the most outstanding large-scale pieces I have seen in recent years.

Downstairs from Martinez’s single-room exhibition, another artist has several rooms of portraits of day-laborers, each still young enough to suggest that something unexpected might still occur in their lives, and old enough for the artist to detect the particular vulnerability that has already been wounded beyond any hope of ever being healed. With strident brushstrokes and a generous mesh of colors suitable for day laborers’ clothing, John Sonsini’s depictions of men isolated on an archipelago of economic and emotional dependency sustain our curiosity without ever becoming egregiously voyeuristic. However minimal the resources that these men might be able to call upon for help in getting through their lives with some measure of self-respect, the portraits deflect the uselessness of any temptation to feel sorry for them or to change the conditions of their lives without first making accommodations for the need for our lives to alter to a similar degree.

In Sonsini’s paintings, one absorbs the immediacy of their compositional duration: something has woken up and gazed out at a world previously asleep. The choice to remain in one world or the other seems to be weighing not only on the minds of those depicted, but in the extended trajectory of each enfolded blur of color grasped, then set aside for further meditation.

The retrospective of Jane Brucker’s work offers us a different meditation. She is quietly insistent on the temporality of preservation. One long table top, at least as long as Martinez’s mural contains a panoply of ordinary possessions delicately juxtaposed, as if in a procession towards some equally humble monument, some supplication with a whispered “amen.” Thread spools, chess pieces, eyeglass lenses without the temples, rosary beads, tiny cases of lipstick, forks and spoons that would only seem large if held by the hand of a two-year-old: all these things and much besides spreads out with one intent – to slow us down. Brucker’s exhibition, entitled “Fragile Thoughts,” reveals how little hold we have on that which can stir the strongest feelings in those who survive us.

Her “Memorial Project,” deservedly receives a very large room in which we are asked to ponder how what we are wearing as we visit the museum might well be turned into a work of art. Bruker has taken shirts and other clothes that form – and inform – the front part of the human body, the part where the heart and our breath is thought of in the most intimate fashion – and made that cloth that which embraces the canvas of the “painting.” There were one or two, in particular, that were palpably still extensions of the people who wore it. One sleeve of a shirt was folded in a manner that left its buttons in an open position so as to suggest a chevron. In looking at it, I could almost hear a voice recite John Keats’s poem, “This living hand,….”

All of this work is awaiting your perusal, the sooner the better. Perhaps I will see you there, for I certainly intend to visit it more than once in the coming months.

Long Beach Museum of Art
2300 E. Ocean Blvd.
Long Beach, CA 90803

(562) 439-2119

Open Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday