The word in play at Centre for the Living Arts (CLA) is “scale.” Not what you find on a fish or reptile, or what a blinded justice holds aloft in idealism. We’re talking sheer size here.
In keeping with the big ideas behind the Memory Project and the Futures Project, contemporary arts showplace Space 301 promises to unveil an exhibit tagged “GLOBAL” — about the biggest scale you can imagine without moving into the extraterrestrial – later this year. On April 11, they began the climb with “PRE-GLO,” which will remain in place until autumn.
Once CLA pulled away the curtain, the impact of size is unavoidable. The front portion of the gallery is engulfed by massive works in “Barrio Aesthetics” from artist Mario Ybarra, Jr. Some may recall Ybarra’s participation with the Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND) collective first surfaced in the Azalea City over the winter when he premiered a series of photographic artworks on billboards throughout our area for a few scant weeks.
However, the vinyls used for the outdoor presentations are now inside 301, laying out Ybarra’s passions in gargantuan form. The first encountered upon entry is ironic as it’s completed by the tiniest of gestures.
“The hostess sat us down and there was this little girl at the buffet line getting her salad bar, dressed for her first communion,” Ybarra said. “So I whipped out my phone and took about five shots.”
The color is rich, the composition tantalizing. The juxtaposition of elements, the flowing white lace of the religious garment and the impersonal steel of the buffet line are all energized by one element, nearly innocuous.
“My favorite part of that photograph was her foot being at that little angle,” Ybarra said and pointed at the girl’s feet, one of which is slightly askew. “That’s probably the first time she’s wearing heels. That’s what I liked because it’s on such a huge scale that little thing brings it back down to earth.”
Ybarra is full of similar stories behind his work. One vinyl wraps a structure within the cavernous 301 exhibition hall. It depicts a Southern California barbershop, the exterior walls festooned with the colorful helical stripes signifying the profession.
Named “The New Chinatown Barbershop,” the business left the tonsorial. After 50 years of shaves and cuts, Ybarra said a new proprietor began to “run art projects out of it.” When she departed for grad school, Ybarra and his wife won the owner’s trust and assumed her duties as a curator and art dealer.
“In 2007, I was invited to be a part of the Tate Modern (in London) and do this installation called the ‘Sweeney Tate,’ based off the Sweeney Todd legend of East London and held an international barber competition in my installation,” Ybarra said. “I had my barber from Los Angeles fly over and had a barber from London and barber from Milan all cut hair.”
The irony wasn’t wasted. It seemed to spur the artist’s entertainment.
“So in Los Angeles we had a barbershop that didn’t cut your hair and in the Tate Modern we had an installation that did cut your hair,” Ybarra chuckled.
Charismatic and jovial, Ybarra’s extroverted personality fits the show’s theme and comes through in his works. The colors, subject selection and context all work together to reveal layers of subtlety to his vision.
One portrait of a mariachi band stretches down a wall then disappears around its corner. What at first seems a quirk of the space allowed unfolds with a few steps in another direction to gaze at a smaller piece.
“I wanted to bring the viewer over here and then when they turn around, they suddenly see the whole thing,” Ybarra said as the new vantage point brought the mariachi work visible in its entirety. The scene is suddenly far larger than life as the musicians wait to cross a street on their way to a gig.
“I’m trying to see how we can play with the person that is viewing the show because the classic kind of putting your hands behind your back and sticking your nose at things, I’m kind of bored with that,” Ybarra explained. “I want it to feel like you have this telescopic lens, that you can go back and it can pull you deeper or go wide angle. It’s just because I want to be a film director and I would say this is really a ‘below budget’ film.”
Ybarra’s presence in Mobile is the kernel of a universal focus that makes 301 a prized commodity here. The rest of the show follows.
“Black Tide,” by the recently departed Allan Sekula, should strike a particularly resonant chord with residents of a town wherein talk of tar sands, pipelines, coal terminals and the aftermath of the BP oil spill are part of contemporary conversation. Mobile joins a list of cities on both sides of the Atlantic to show his work.
Tom Leeser returns with “Global Futures: Pre-Global,” a video work implementing data on commodities, shipping, even incarceration rates into an installation drawing myriad threads across our world. The cardinal points are represented by listening stations where Tibetan chants, Brazilian percussion and Icelandic poems not only add texture but complete the scenario of a shrinking reality.
For those among us with wide vision, the show does its best to fill it. Let’s hope enough blinders are discarded to take it in.
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