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Aesthetics in Action

Los Angeles-born artist Mario Ybarra Jr.'s latest project compares his native city to Chicago.

By SIGALIT ZETOUNI
Artist Mario Ybarra Jr. uses performance, humor and ingenuity to comment on urban culture. His next stop: Chicago

    Broadway is a central road that runs through downtown Los Angeles. After crossing the Hollywood Freeway, it enters the Los Angeles Civic Center, passes the Los Angeles Times building on First Street and leads into the historic downtown commercial district. Before World War II, Broadway functioned as a genuine downtown, where residents came to shop and watch films at grand movie palaces. Today Broadway displays a dozen, mostly neglected, historic theaters that make up the largest surviving collection of pre-WWII theaters in the country.
    In January of 1931 at 615 S. Broadway, the Los Angeles Theatre hosted the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s classic film “City Lights.” Albert Einstein and his wife were Chaplin’s personal guests at the gala, standing on the red carpet, while a crowd of Great Depression victims stormed the streets. The extravagant movie palace, designed by S. Charles Lee and inspired by French Baroque décor, showcased 1930s Hollywood glamour. Today, however, the historic stretch of grand style has turned into an enclave of retail marts, street vendors and check-cashing outlets, serving the working-class Hispanic community. Active by day, Broadway empties by nightfall.
    For almost a decade, artist Mario Ybarra Jr. (b. 1973) has been creating work that highlights and stages the stories of fringe and subculture in American society. Growing up in Wilmington amid a Mexican-American community near the Los Angeles harbor, Ybarra Jr.’s artistic development has been energized by his rich cultural experiences. His parents were dockworkers.
    In 2002, soon after receiving an MFA from University of California, Irvine, Ybarra Jr. performed an action piece entitled, “Cowboys on Broadway.” The artist cruised Broadway in a 1979 Chevrolet Monte Carlo decorated by a friend who was obsessed with the Dallas Cowboys. The friend, Angel Montes Jr., painted in the team’s colors and removed the Chevrolet logo, replacing it with the Cowboys’ logo. The air valves on the tires were covered with plastic footballs, and the rims were dressed with blue stars. In his performance, Ybarra Jr. created a fresh approach to the city’s agony over not having a genuine downtown, as well as the residents’ distress over the lack of a local football team. His humorous critique turned darkness to light.
    Ybarra Jr.’s work has included a social exploration of barbershops across African-American communities. At the Tate Modern in London, he created a performance by bringing together barbers from across London to participate in a hair-cutting competition. Currently, he is one of the 2008 Whitney Biennial artists, where his installation  “The Scarface Museum” exhibits memorabilia related to the movie from the collection of his friend Angel Montes Jr., to whom Al Pacino’s character represented a model of success. The work reflects on the story of the fictional gangster–drug dealer as one flawed hero for American youth.
    In recent years, Ybarra Jr. has worked internationally on a trilogy of large-scale murals, including "Brown and Proud" (2006) in London, “If I Rise...You Rise” (2007) at the Prague Biennial and “Promised Land” for the Capp Street Project in San Francisco, while in residence at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. “Promised Land” is still on view on the staircase outside the entrance to the Logan Galleries. The artist expressed his wish for the mural to remain for the next 300 years.
    To prepare for the mural, Ybarra Jr. explored San Francisco’s local neighborhoods and learned about the history and mythology that surrounded mural making in the Bay Area. He began exploring the 1920s, when the murals involved the politics of the labor unions, and continued to the beautiful commissioned murals that were created by Diego Rivera for the San Francisco elite. He was fascinated by the development of street graffiti through several generations. On the first of May, Ybarra followed the “Day Without Immigrants” march and was astonished to see how different San Francisco political culture was compared to that in Los Angeles, where the parade was attended by a majority of Hispanics, the police were watching every move, and violence was inevitable. In San Francisco, the artist observed that the participants were diverse in age, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic levels. The police were very friendly and cheerful, and the march appeared festive.
    And as for Chicago, currently at the Art Institute is Ybarra Jr.’s “Take Me Out...No Man Is an Island,” in which he conducts a comparative study of Los Angeles and Chicago. The exhibition includes a room-size replica of Wrigley Field based on a paper fold-out model of the park designed by the artist. The exhibition continues through August 24.

Published: June 23, 2008
Issue: Summer 2008 Urban Living