A Modernist Proposal at Craft and Cultural Arts Gallery

A rewarding José Ramón Lerma retrospective.

“Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! … Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions!” Artist Jos Sances quoted Allen Ginsberg’s Beat anthem “Howl” in 2000 as a tribute to artist José Ramón Lerma for a show in San Francisco. Lerma’s paintings and assemblages, now on view in Oakland, deserve the rhapsodies, containing various aesthetic strands of the postwar period, including Abstract Expressionism (which the young Korean War vet studied at the San Francisco Art Institute during its glory years), Funk, Pop, and Conceptualism. Art history is here, but also political and cultural history: social issues treated with serious humor and satiric verve. The works manage, writes Juan Fuentes, to be “very related, very abstract, very individual, and collective all at the same time.” Aside from the work, Lerma seems to live an exemplary creative life, if you believe other fans like Luis Cervantes, Howard Foote, Daniel Galvez, Matt Gonzalez, Bob Hanamura, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Nathan Oliveira, and Jim Scully. Impossible not to quote: William T. Wiley on Lerma’s “great sharp wit — and critical comment — often cutting through the crap with a succinct remark or observation;” and Roy DeForest’s hip/corny benediction: “A really neat person.” “At nine years old … I could not believe that [the artworks] were coming from me …. I found the whole process very magical …. To this day, I will start a painting by putting down a color or line and I take it from there.” Lerma’s trust in instinct shows in the generous range of his work, from early figurative and abstract work — “Abstract the First” (1954), “Unfinished Madonna” (1955) — through the later assemblages and collages combining secular and loosely sacred imagery — “Venus on Hot Dog” (1970), “American Consumer” (1988), the Mickey series, and homages to Duchamp, Matisse, Picasso, Lorca, Kahlo, Bruce Conner, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Some favorites: the 2001 abstractions “Polluted Sky,” “Call to Mohammed,” and “To Garcia Lorca: El Jardin,” with blazing color, decorative stippling, and punchy drawing belying serious subtexts; the cheese-headed semi-abstract rodent of “Mouse” (1980); the 1995 assemblage “Para Picasso,” with its Olmec puzzle piece obscuring the Spaniard’s “Girl Before a Mirror;” “Go to Heaven” (1988), an exuberant fantasy on American pop culture; and “A Child’s Game” (1993-4), a Cornellian apotheosis of oddments. The show layout is handsome but confusing; the artworks are not arranged in the same order as on the single (!) numbered figure list; furthermore, they’re unnumbered. Steel drum performance by Harry Best on Thursday, April 21, at 5:30 p.m. A History: 1946-2010 José Ramón Lerma runs through April 22 at Craft and Cultural Arts Gallery (1515 Clay St., Oakland, Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.). 510-622-8190 or Oakland CulturalArts.org


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