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Lipstick Tracers

Christopher Gardner

Gender Castaway: Erika Hannes' playful installation 'Enriquetta's Arena' is populated with dolls, toys and other talismans of the rigid roles that society spoon-feeds children.

Three MACLA artists pinpoint changes in spiritual and gender landscape

By Ann Elliott Sherman

ECOLOGICAL and evolutionary changes are first likely to become evident in small but telling details that alter the balance of nature viewed as the status quo. The three artists in Lipstick Ecology and Right-Brain Theories of Evolution at MACLA/The San José Center for Latino Arts share a far-from-clinical attention to that fact. Like seasoned raconteurs, Elizabeth Gómez, Tibisay Geis and Erika Hannes know that timing and placement of well-chosen details supply the nuance that separates entertaining food for thought from ham-fisted propaganda.

Gómez blends the fantastic with the prosaic, lighthearted whimsy with deeper reverberations, in paintings that purposely straddle the borders often erected between folk and fine art. Her deft realization of form, color and composition belies the faux-naif, flat-planed style common to retablo or "primitive" art.

Characteristic of Gomez's work is an intrinsic connection between humans and animals and plants. Even by the standards of magical realism, the blurring of the lines between the species evinces a singular sensibility. The people in these paintings identify not only with noble stags or powerful leopards but also with animals usually seen as pests to exterminate or food to slaughter.

The unity expressed is a deeply felt spiritual ecology that implicitly questions all kinds of power politics and cultural values. In Gómez's view, the dove can conquer the hawk, a woman who doesn't shave is an attractive flame that shares the moth's subtle beauty.

In The Little Wound, Gomez links a seraphic girl to memories of a mother gopher's death by a pronged trap. The girl stitches on her quilt the same kind of tuberous flowers as those growing near the gopher hole. Her blood-red thread is just part of a circle of creation and destruction, in figurative and compositional terms. The flower bulbs echo the shape of the burrow where the mother animal's young lie entwined like twin fetuses.

Without preaching directly, Gómez asks, Who should play God?--and touches phantom pains in anyone who's ever faced those issues or intimately experienced how quickly a life's beginning can end.

GEIS' MIXED-MEDIA works also present layers of color, meaning and imagery, as the artist takes on some of the usual sacred cows and sacrificial lambs. Psychopompus nods to Roy Lichtenstein and Enrique Chagoya, with its layers of photoengraving dots, a cartoonish snorkler and the foot of Jesus straight out of a holy card.

But Geis sends up gospel truth her own way. The nail-wounded foot merges with a wing made out of burnt wood to suggest another sort of god. A dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, divebombs the Divine Hand, which is squeezing an ovary. Definitely not the usual symbolism for the Immaculate Conception, but by leaving the Virgin Mary out of the picture and branding the whole thing with that editorial title, Geis nails Christianity's patriarchal undercurrents.

Turning her lasers toward things secular, in Neck Red No Head, Geis wryly paints a dot-to-dot, fill-in-the-blanks cowboy hat over images of an ape's hairy paw wringing all the green out of Central and South America and holding a rolled-up map of the New World, read to swat a fly.

Less obvious but more compelling, Down shines a subtle light on the leather-gloved hand of a lace-wristed conquistador. The conquistador's thumb is cockily hooked in a waistband erupting with a ruddy thatch of hair. Geis captures all the malice and callous disregard contained within that one gesture.

Erika Hannes' Remote Control Cars series is a hilarious spoof of the separate and definitely not equal pink-and-purple ghetto of girls' toys. She turns battery-operated boys' toys into the turbo-charged Spikier Heels (a metallic high-heeled shoe fully equipped with lethal pins) and Barbed Bra (a pink-fur undergarment on wheels with strategic screw missiles wired for action).

But the cars are just the warm-up act, meant to be raced around Hannes' installation, Enriquetta's Arena. Imagine a miniature tropical isle full of pink Styrofoam grottoes and forested with plastic Christmas trees and fuchsia mylar palms. A volcano spews a lava flow of bubble-gum-colored plastic high heels.

This fantastical island world is populated by ballerina quarterbacks and altars of kewpie-doll calaveras. Buddha contemplates Barbie on a doll-sized TV; a battalion of pink-pompomed army men invade by sea. It's Pee-wee's Playhouse liberated by Sid from Toy Story's little sister.

Hannes' use of playthings is not only fun, but pointed. It reminds us at what an early age society spoon-feeds its expected norms of gender identity, and how the most apparently innocuous object can reinforce that status quo through something as simple as its color.

What distinguishes this Arena from the us-versus-them school of social critique is how its male and female figures cross back and forth over gender lines, playing victim and perpetrator by turns. Applying this frontera perspective of a fluid border of mutual influence to notions of gender identity lends new meaning to the term "free-for-all." Hannes has brought kitsch, feminist commentary and California assemblage out of their '60s and '70s funk, straight to the edge of the millennium.

Lipstick Ecology and Right-Brain Theories of Evolution runs through June 21 at MACLA, the San José Center for Latino Arts, 510 S. First St., San Jose (408/998-ARTE)

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From the June 5-11, 1997 issue of Metro

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