By Elaine Wolff
It's hard to admit, but the biggest eye-catchers at the July 1 openings for Contemporary Art Month were the Sexy Chicks Guayaberas on sale at San Angel Folk Art. Made in Mexico, these feminine versions of the traditional pleated, boxy Mexican dress shirt feature bosom-enhancing darts and delicately embroidered birds and flowers on bright orange and cream-colored cotton. Fancy ladies around town are already sporting San Angel's dramatic, Swarovski-crystal-enhanced earrings made by Arizonan flamenco dancer and holistic healer Maya Gracia. You'll never toss your head the same way again.
Not that Juan Miguel Ramos' work, on view at the Guadalupe Cultural Art Center's bookstore, isn't every bit as good as everything else this talented San Antonio native has produced. Westside Lotería also features familiar faces and places, recast as El Diablito, La Sirena, and other icons from the game, which functions like a cross between tarot cards and bingo. I don't think there's another figurative artist in town who is as adept at capturing the essence of his subjects, but displayed among tables and shelves filled with books (50 percent off!), the prints are crowded and almost drowned out. The opening reception was warm and fun, though, with many of Ramos' models drinking Miller Lite from cans and frequenting the gorditas buffet line.
The crowd was more formal over at Joan Grona Gallery, with the exception of Rick Hunter, who was showing new photographic compositions adjacent to three-dimensional paintings by UTSA graduate Jennifer Agricola. Hunter, one of SA's most talented and down-to-earth photographers, is trying something new, layering close-ups of old book covers and retablos with images in his signature style - old men in cowboy hats closing down the ice house, Mexican passion plays, and bullfighters. The large-format prints are colorful, engaging, and mostly soulful, although many of them still feel too commercial for art per se. If Hunter can shed his innate desire to please the customer, he will be a formidable artist as well as photographer.
Also worth noting is an abstract painting by a young artist named Jason Willome, whose father, Tom Willome, has taught at SAC for more than three decades. Willome has used discomfiting colors (jet black and an excess of teal blue), texture, and layering to good effect in a large work in which Grona says you can see the visage of the vanquished Iraqi president.
Speaking of iteration, the deliciously obsessive work of Lauren Levy, on view at the Southwest School of Art & Craft, is too much of a good thing. Displaying half the number of items - hooded Eskimo-like pullovers, small dresses, and vessels all constructed of vintage buttons and other small found objects - would have conveyed the ingeniousness of this artist who defies the line between art and craft. The pieces are poignant because it is impossible not to fill their familiar forms with familiar emotions such as tenderness, grief, and nostalgia. The skill and time required to manufacture each work evokes nostalgia for and fascination with a time when each spoon and dress was made by hand. The close spacing of the display cases also evokes the claustrophobia of early American life, when frontier families crowded into one- and two-room cabins.
Levy's exhibit is housed in one room because the adjacent, larger space features a one-man show by local artist Gary Sweeney, best known around town for re-creating quotable quotes with pieces of old commercial signs, like giant ransom notes. One of the cubicle spaces set within the larger room, for instance, has a variation on a quote that once graced the inside of a satirical book called The Wit and Wisdom of Spiro T. Agnew (Nixon's ignominious VP): "When small men cast big shadows, it's a sure sign the sun is setting."
Here Sweeney has continued his practice of mixing epic subjects with kitschy humor and nostalgia-inducing Americana, an appropriate approach to U.S. politics, for sure, but it always feels like there's a linchpin missing. As his uniting theme he has taken The Story of Civilization, by Will and Ariel Durant, using the first paragraph and chapter titles as headings for mixed media pieces that poke gentle fun at history, his own past, and the role of local arts personalities (himself front and center).
Sweeney's use of a wood burner to recreate handwriting on a large scale, as in a mock postcard from Davy Crockett or samples of an aging Georgia O'Keefe's deteriorating signature, for instance, succeeds in humanizing distant figures, but it's hard to tell if Sweeney takes any of this seriously enough for us to spend time parsing it out. There's a Jimmy Stewart It's a Wonderful Life feel that encourages the viewer not to get too psychologically engaged - disconcerting for material that harbors some serious subject matter. •
By Elaine Wolff