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Whimsical, colorful art from José Lozano

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All artwork is by Jose Lozano, courtesy of the Manhattan Beach Art Center

Tales from the Neighborhood

In Manhattan Beach, a solo show devoted to artist José Lozano

by Bondo Wyszpolski

You can have a down-to-earth conversation about art if you talk with José Lozano, and maybe you’ll get that chance because “José Lozano: Chicano Trickster” opens a week from today at the Manhattan Beach Art Center and the artist will be in attendance.

José Lozano. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Lozano was born in Los Angeles, but after his parents divorced he ended up with family in Juárez, Mexico. However, by the age of seven he was back stateside and growing up in Fullerton. Eventually he’d earn a Master of Arts degree from Cal State Fullerton.

“I’ve been drawing since I was in second, third grade,” he says, putting the roadmap to his artistic career in some perspective. Even then, teachers were encouraging him. One in particular “would take me to the YMCA every Saturday. He picked me up and took me to art class for two hours, and then took me back home.”

ON THE FAST TRACK, UNTIL…

“I had an art teacher in high school, Mrs. Randle, who really pushed me to apply and go to college. So I went to Art Center. I was accepted right out of high school. That was rare. But I wasn’t ready; it was a little too soon.”

It appears that he found the focus on the technical aspects of art too demanding, or that the emphasis on skills over creativity made for too rigid and narrow an approach.

“Maybe I was lazy,” Lozano says, “but I know the purpose of art. You have to learn how to draw, and you have to learn how to use color, all that stuff, your basics. And then after you get that done you have to say something, you have to develop a way of expressing yourself.”

If we look at Lozano’s work today, we can see that he has an affinity for the human form, and for ordinary-looking people. But if we’d been around during his undergraduate years we’d have seen something entirely different.

“I was doing Pollock, de Kooning kind of things,” he says. “I thought that was art. That was the epitome of art to splash some paint. But I was failing miserably.” His teachers looked askance at his work. Later, Lozano realized, “I was just mimicking what these people had done.”

Lozano began to think he wasn’t cut out to be an artist.

Then, one day, feeling that his potential career in art was rapidly fading, “I did a drawing out of my head, a figure, like a childhood memory. The teacher said, ‘Who did this?’ I said, ‘I did.’ And then he said, ‘Well, cut that de Kooning crap, and do more of this.’”

José Lozano, a self portrait

A LIST OF INGREDIENTS

“So then it became easier,” Lozano continues. “I used what I knew–my technical skills, whatever those were–and I [applied] them to say something about where I live, the situation that I was in, the people that I went to parties with. I just started doing social commentary, getting to the details of human nature and making observations, and making funny stories about it.”

The painted drawings, in the words of art professor Dianna Marisol Santillano, “are all rendered in a style that conflates popular illustration, absurdist Expressionism, and Mexican Modernist’s populism with Fauvist aesthetic sensibilities.” Comparisons can be made, and similarities found, with George Grosz, Otto Dix, Toulouse Lautrec, as well as Lynda Barry, San Pedro artist Peggy Reavey, and, while we’re at it, recording artist Ry Cooder’s albums “Chavez Ravine” and “I, Flathead.”

Better yet, perhaps, are a couple of self-published booklets, “A Wedding Tale” and “The Amazons from El Paso,” that Lozano wrote and illustrated a few years ago (he’s also published a pair of children’s books, “Once Around the Block” and “Little Chanclas”). They epitomize this sentence from one of his artist statements: “Much of [my] work is influenced by cultural footnotes such as fotonovelas, ghost stories, comic books, and musical genres such as bolero and ranchera.”

When you see these works, you’ll understand something of Lozano’s “trickster mentality.” He’s playful, he’s imaginative, and in a sense has preserved a childlike sense of curiosity and impishness. This is evident to an extent in an unfinished series about Vincent Van Gogh, alive and struggling in Silver Lake. To make ends meet, his brother Theo finds him a job at Trader Joe’s.

For the most part, though, Lozano’s illustrations depict scenes from daily life in Mexican-American neighborhoods. “I’m not glorifying Latinos,” he says, “because most of my work has to do with my neighbors and my friends, and most of them are Latinos. I feel comfortable that I can comment on them because I know them, and I fictionalize them.”

In other words, he observes, extrapolates, and creates semi-folkloric vignettes.

“It’s also kind of literary,” he adds, “because I’ve always liked writing and stories. You learn about people through literature.”

Asked what it is he reads or has influenced him, his first answer comes as a bit of a surprise: Edith Wharton, the author of “The House of Mirth” and “The Age of Innocence.” Wharton, born about a century before Lozano, came from quite a different milieu (New York, and a family of merchants, bankers, and lawyers), but like Lozano she was a diligent observer of the social world around her. Other writers who have impressed Lozano include Dostoevsky, who wrote long, and Juan Rulfo, who wrote short.

TAPPING IN

In discussing what motivates him, creatively speaking, Lozano uses the word “duende,” which essentially translates to that quality of passion or inspiration, embodied in the Muse, that energizes the artist and drives him or her in their art. It’s more than simply motivation: A paycheck can provide motivation, but genuine inspiration is another cat altogether.

Now, should we try to harness our duende or our Muse and start ordering it around? Of course not, because logic and, yes, even too much technical knowhow, can chase it away, and what the artist may end up with, in Lozano’s words, is “something that looks like an eighth grade project because it’s all thought-out.”

Some people, God bless them, can leap out of bed in the morning and five minutes later they’re busy working at their art. Others have to dance around a bit before they get started. Call it procrastination, they’ll find all sorts of excuses not to jump in and start painting or writing . Lozano’s like this; I’m like this. But then that moment comes, and you dive in.

“And once you sit down and you start it’s the easiest thing,” Lozano says, “once you start putting something on paper. And then that thing tells you what to do next.” You go along with it, you get into the groove, and you find you’ve tapped into something.

José Lozano. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Lozano refers to this as “a sacred human impulse that should not be messed with,” but, unfortunately, he feels that it has. “People have the capacity in them to be creative and imaginative, but this culture is not embraced and not celebrated because you’re not encouraged in school. I work with kids, and their imagination is not encouraged. Everything is by the book, and the art is really kind of planned out beforehand.”

In the end, if all goes well and the struggle with one’s aesthetic isn’t overwhelming, there’s bound to be a payoff, of sorts, and it’s usually in the sense of personal satisfaction rather than large sums of money.

“I’ve had people come up to me like they know me,” Lozano says, referring to the various art shows he’s been in. “Some of them are really appreciative of what you gave them, and that’s a great feeling, because you shared something with them. It’s nice to sell a painting once in awhile, but I think it’s more rewarding when a person comes up to you and says, I really like what you do.”
José Lozano: Chicano Trickster opens with a reception on Thursday, Sept. 14, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Manhattan Beach Art Center, 1560 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach. It’s part of the citywide, Getty-initiated “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA” (Latin American and Latino Art in L.A.). Hours, Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closes Oct. 8. Call (310) 802-5448 or go to citymb.info. ER

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