In Frank Romero's 1996 painting The Arrest of the Paleteros, towering palm trees reach into an evening sky streaked with pink and reflect off the placid surface of Echo Park Lake, a sight that cuts to the core of Los Angeles' awe-inspiring beauty. But in the foreground, there's chaos. Framed in a cop car's headlights, four ice cream vendors reach into the air — echoing the palm trees in the background — as police officers train their weapons on them and two small children holding paletas in their tiny fists. Off to the left, a balloon vendor is pursued on foot by a cop with his billy club drawn. The balloon man is wearing an almost cartoonish outfit and his mouth is agape, which seems to further emphasize the absurdity of LAPD's excessively zealous crackdown on unlicensed vendors in the early '90s.
On loan from actor Cheech Marin, the painting is part of the Museum of Latin American Art's incredibly thorough retrospective of Romero's life's work. As a member of the art collective Los Four — along with Carlos Almaraz, Roberto de la Rocha and Gilbert Luján — Romero was part of what's considered to be the first Chicano art exhibition in a mainstream art institution, at LACMA in 1974. The 1984 mural Going to the Olympics, perhaps his most recognizable work, is still visible to drivers on the 101 just east of the 110 interchange. According to MOLAA, "Dreamland: A Frank Romero Retrospective" highlights "the artist's lifelong fascination with city lore and, through his perspective, explores the confluence of American pop culture, Latin American heritage and the Chicano experience."
As a chronicler of L.A.'s landscape — usually viewed from above — and Chicano culture at large, it's no wonder that transportation figures so prominently in Romero's work. In a series of highly stylized, two-tone pieces, highway interchanges curl like corkscrews across the canvas. Elsewhere, classic cars and trucks navigate the gray ribbons of highway that connect L.A.'s various parts, from Romero's home in Boyle Heights to the San Gabriel Mountains. One of the earliest works in the exhibit is a lifelike oil painting of a tan teddy bear from the 1950s; the bear continues to make appearances in Romero's work (you can see him in the upper left hand corner of the 1998 mural above).
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The section of the exhibit that focuses on the Chicano community's traumatic interactions with L.A. law enforcement is particularly powerful. In addition to The Arrest of the Paleteros, there's The Closing of Whittier Blvd., a painting that depicts the police crackdown on "cruising" the thoroughfare after a certain hour. A streetlight beams down on a white officer looking triumphant on horseback. He holds a lance like a medieval knight and manages to look larger and more imposing than the ton-plus classic cars that surround him. A number of pieces from the '90s reflect on the L.A. riots, which took place 25 years ago this spring. One of the most compelling pieces shows Los Angeles as though someone's looking down on it from the San Gabriel Mountains, with the Pacific off to the right and South Los Angeles up top. An otherwise serene grid of streets is dotted with tufts of smoke that indicate trouble on the ground. As a new presidential administration continues to enact policies that put entire communities on edge, particularly in Southern California, it feels more important than ever to revisit what's been overcome in the past.
"Dreamland: A Frank Romero Retrospective," Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach; through May 21; $10, $7 students & seniors, free kids under 12 (and free for everyone on Sundays). molaa.org.