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Performance review: Gregorio Luke’s 'Frida, a New Look' at Ford Ampitheatre

June 12, 2010 |  2:32 pm

Kahlo Beguiling Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is easy to love, and further, to fetishize. Her distinctive color-drenched canvases, crammed with autobiographical lore from her tragedy-strewn life, tug the eye and the heart. This well-seasoned mix has spawned Kahlo cult-figure status.

We depend on experts like Gregorio Luke, former director of Long Beach’s Museum of Latin American Art, to provide dispassionate insight to temper the hype, and distinguish the artist from the myth.

Viewers had no such benefit from the art historian’s illustrated lecture, “Frida, a New Look,” at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on Friday night. (The program repeats on Saturday.) Designed as a “living memory of Frida Kahlo, to bring her alive,” Luke’s latest edition of his giant-screened revamps of the stodgy art talk canonizes the woman he admiringly calls “that most Mexican of artists” who “in spite of her suffering, built an art that was authentic and came from the hearts of the Mexican people.”

“There are art historians who never consider the artist’s life. I cannot separate her life from her work,” says Luke, somewhat defiantly, and these words guide his ambitious presentation to its detriment. Luke’s hybrid form of entertainment – neither annotated art lecture nor cathartic evening of fun – suffers from over zeal for his subject.

Dance

New, unseen works, both portraits and landscapes, pepper the presentation. But they zoom by, practically unnamed, as though the audience wouldn't care to examine them, much less know details like titles or years.

And they’re lost in a tour that emphasizes Kahlo’s sordid suffering -- her crippling trolley accident, the humiliations of marriage to the philandering Diego Rivera, her debilitating string of unsuccessful surgeries. A marvelous early portrait of Rivera, Kahlo’s lifelong subject and foil, inspires Luke’s commentary that “a portrait like this could only come from love.” A more painterly analysis of why scholars and critics now figure Kahlo's portraits among the greats of art history would lend more insight. 

Reinforcing the mystique around Kahlo, the woman, is Luke's fascination for her fashion statements (one of her real dresses hangs in a glass display case on the Ford’s picnic grounds), and his claim that Kahlo, who dressed in both mannish suits and the feminine folkloric rebozo, invested as much energy into her persona as her art. This well-shared interpretation insidiously devalues her art.

Previously unseen film footage is also on view. A fetching black-and-white film shows Kahlo sketching, an extraordinarily beautiful woman, jet-black hair coiled in neat braids under a chic hat that hugs her small head. But there we go again, lapsing into Kahlo-mania! 

Local area students from Central Los Angeles High School #9 joined four visiting performers from Mexico’s Taller Coreografico de la Unam in a show-opening danced homage. Mexican dance maker Gloria Contreras’s symmetrical choreography has a dated, unadventurous feel, but Olga Rodriguez excelled in her expressive, “Magdalena.” Rina Lazo and Arturo García Bustos, two of Kahlo’s surviving students (“Los Fridos”) contributed memories. The crowd’s many happy Frida-ites, some in colorful costume, circulated the Ford grounds.

-- Debra Levine

Gregorio Luke at the "Ford: Frida, a New Look," John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, Saturday, 8 p.m.

Photos: Gregorio Luke, in front of a portrait of Frida Kahlo, and Central Los Angeles High School No. 9 with Mexican dancer Alfredo Garcia. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times.

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