Mario Ybarra Jr.’s emotionally layered exhibition “Double Feature” was a compilation of two projects: “Scarface Museum,” a collection of memorabilia from Brian de Palma’s 1983 movie, which was a favorite of his childhood friend Angel Montes Jr.; and “Universal Monsters,” five painted and two sculpted self-portraits based on characters from Universal Studios’ sci-fi and horror films from the1920s through the ’60s.
Born in Los Angeles in 1972, the L.A.-based Ybarra creates witty and provocative installations that have been included over the past decade in exhibitions throughout the U.S. and Europe. “Scarface Museum,” first shown at Miami Basel in 2005 and included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, had its first L.A. presentation at Honor Fraser. The artist filled one room of the gallery with film posters, prints, a wall text and five vitrines containing sundry Scarface-related objects such as key chains, jackets and toys, each sporting an image of Al Pacino (who plays drug kingpin Tony Montana) in various degrees of gun-wielding bravado. A handwritten letter in one case holds the key to the personal quest and social critique inherent in the project. Addressed to the artist from Montes, it begins, “I hope this letter finds you good. . . . As for me, [I’m] still being a triple OG [original gangster].”
Ybarra went to art school and Montes to jail; their circumstances reflect an uncomfortable truth about a nation in which a vastly disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos are incarcerated. Situated at a complex nexus of personal memory, sociopolitical narrative and fan culture, “Scarface Museum” engages a knotty range of emotions related to success, or survival, in an environment in which success and survival are not the norm. The project poses questions about how and where the friends’ paths diverged. More broadly, it considers our cultural obsession with violence, and why so many teens from urban neighborhoods wind up in prison.
It is this latter thread that Ybarra takes up in “Universal Monsters.” Reimagining himself as the monsters of cinema, the artist tempers his familiar levity with subtle psychological depth. If individually opaque, together these self-portraits question the role of race and gender in our cultural conceptions of evil. The 60-by-48-inch Creature (2012), the most emotionally nuanced piece, draws on the 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. It depicts a figure in army fatigues with a dream catcher around his neck and his hands pressed together in prayer; only his deep brown eyes are visible from behind a green mask, staring out not with menace but in sheer terror. Two paintings inspired by “The Invisible Man” (from the 1933 movie based on the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells) are equally humorous and poignant. In one, the artist is depicted in a hat and glasses, his face partially covered with a corrugated cardboard mask; in the other, only the hat and glasses remain. These portraits additionally resonate with Ralph Ellison’s renowned 1952 novel of the same title, in which the narrator, a nameless black man, feels unseen by society.
When Ybarra was growing up, he has said, he wanted to be both a psychic detective and Indiana Jones. In its probing investigation of a trail of sociopolitical inequity, and driven by cinematic tropes, this exhibition appeared to fulfill both sides of his childhood aspiration.
Mario Ybarra Jr.: Creature, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 60 by 48 inches; at Honor Fraser.