COMBINING elements of traditional Chicano portraiture, lowrider art and pinta (jailhouse) art, Shizu Saldamando’s delicate paintings and drawings depict a generation of young adults not commonly seen on canvases or gallery walls. So it seems fitting that this Saturday, the 30-year-old artist will open her first solo show at Tropico de Nopal, a community-oriented gallery space in Echo Park.
Her subjects are generally her friends or her musical idols – punks, bruisers and rockers mostly from East, southeast and downtown Los Angeles. Her technique could be described as a remix of traditional painting, on canvas and Japanese washi paper, with pop culture materials such as sticker paper, handkerchiefs and ballpoint pens.
“Despite the revitalization of representational painting, few people are doing quite what Shizu is doing,” says Reyes Rodriguez, who founded and runs Tropical de Nopal with his wife, Marialice Jacob. “Her subjects are a generation of people who are challenging culture even as they re-create it. Not only is she documenting her contemporaries, she’s speaking to them.”
The response to her style wasn’t always so welcoming. “I had a Latino professor come in and say, ‘Your work looks like 1980s Chicano art. It’s a dead movement. It’s over. Don’t ever go back.’ He was very adamant about that,” Saldamando says, recalling a college incident.
Even her parents, both social activists, have questioned her choice of subjects. “My parents are supportive, but they’re old-school, so they’re used to farmworker protest paintings and things like that,” Saldamando says. “They would look at my work and ask, ‘Why are you painting Morrissey? Why don’t you paint Cesar Chavez?’ ”
Half Japanese American and half Mexican American, Saldamando grew up in the Mission district of San Francisco, where she was exposed at a young age to the gallery scene. But it was during high school that she began to hone her style. “My friends and I would buy Teen Angels, a magazine of lowrider and cholo art, and try to copy the drawings of Aztec pyramids and warriors and naked girls. I think that’s how I got good at ballpoint pen renderings,” she says.
Arriving in L.A. at age 18, she found others who shared her background and her interest in British shoegazer rock. “Growing up in the Mission district in San Francisco, it was predominantly a hip-hop culture. Here in Los Angeles, I’d go to shows or house parties, and it would be all Latino kids listening to the Cure and the Smiths. In L.A., I felt normal for the first time.”
This dialogue between middle-class Latino kids and working-class Britpoppers is at the heart of “The Holy Quatro,” four ballpoint-pen-on-handkerchief portraits of rockers Morrissey, Siouxsie Sioux, Robert Smith and Dave Gahan. “Handkerchiefs are the traditional medium for many prisoners, since they don’t have access to drawing paper,” Saldamando says. “The handkerchiefs make the work more delicate, sort of precious. And the quality you get is really nice, because it’s so soft and easy to blend.”
For portraits of friends, Saldamando works off unposed digital stills taken at dance clubs and social events. She may shoot hundreds and counts herself lucky if one or two are usable. With the photo displayed on her laptop, she paints and draws, often on untreated canvas, sometimes on plywood, butcher paper or bedsheets. The documentary quality of the material combined with painstaking renderings make the paintings almost photo-realistic.
Saldamando’s show contains several of her trademark collage portraits as well as two large-scale ballpoint pen drawings done on bedsheets and four colored-pencil drawings on paper.
“The look and feel of her work strikes me as very L.A.,” says Jennifer Doyle, an associate professor at UC Riverside. “It’s that blend of a punk-pop aesthetic with pretty Japanese-girl-craft, meticulous rendition combined with the laid-back posture of her subjects. Her aesthetic has a hybridity to it that is very Los Angeles, insofar as L.A. itself is an incongruous mishmash.”