A feel for activism, a deft touch
In Caleb Duarte's "sculptural paintings," materials speak as potently as images.
By Leah Ollman, Special to The Times
Taking a glance at the list of places where Caleb Duarte has shown his work, and the themes of the exhibitions he's been in, it's clear that the young artist from Oakland has a political bent, that he regards his work as an activist practice of sorts. Viewing his first show in L.A., at Gallery 727, it's also clear that he has a tremendous amount to offer, in terms of nuance and skill, toward broadening the category of socially informed artistic practice.In Duarte's "sculptural paintings," materials speak as potently as images. Duarte draws and paints on pieces of drywall, then sets the panels within driftwood structures that protrude from the wall or construction-type frameworks. The drywall is scuffed and Duarte has stained it with sallow washes of acrylic. Puddles of watery brown and dull gray drip down the surface, mingling with scribbled notations and numbers.
The atmosphere is one of degradation, disregard, randomness and poverty. Within these amorphous settings, Duarte places figures, singly or in small groups. Much of the power of this work derives from the contrast between the integrity of these figures and the shabbiness of their milieu. In "Pisos de Tierra" (Dirt Floors), four young black boys press together tightly in a line, the momentum of their bodies leaning them forward at a slight angle. Duarte draws their skin in rich, full-strength charcoal and paints their shorts and shirts (perhaps a school uniform) in gleaming white. Their earnestness appears to be on a collision course with circumstance. The drywall panel on which they are so vividly drawn also contains snippets of ad copy, a symbol for equal housing opportunity and a sketch of a young black man pumping gas. It forms part of a framed wall of a downscaled house form, whose neatly demarcated floor is made of dirt.Duarte has a light touch with commentary. In an image of a couple being married, he writes the word "pobre" (poor) across the groom's outlined head, but mostly he makes allusions to social inequities through the structures and forms of his work, through raw or eroded surfaces, skittered with graphic debris. In "Tabla," two young, barefoot children hold hands against a backdrop of distant threats to their innocence and safety: a silhouette of soldiers raising guns, the R-rating designation for a film, another row of soldiers, this time in video-game style pictographs.Duarte draws with gorgeous facility and with an abiding sense of honesty. He brings to mind graphic artists like Käthe Kollwitz and Charles White, whose attentive renderings of the face and body in themselves express a kind of hope and faith in humanity. Duarte's figures have a purity about them, even as they navigate an impure world. The way they float among the scrap suggests vulnerability, but Duarte invests them — as if wishing this upon the world — with awareness of their innate self-worth.Gallery 727, 727 S. Spring St., (213) 627-9563, through Sept. 30. Closed Sunday and Monday.