Visual Arts - California dreaming

The High trips its way through the art of Louis Monza

Fans of self-taught artists know the routine: the childlike technique mixed with often-scary assertions of doom-filled prophecy and religious wrath.

Amongst the folkies, it is all fire and ice, sweet and salty and the conflicting urges of moral self-righteousness and off-the-leash libido.

Self-taught artist Louis Monza certainly brings some of folk art's eccentricity, paranoia and visions of paradise to his work. Trained as a traditional woodcarver in his native Italy, Monza had to make do as a laborer when he immigrated to America at age 16. But lady fate had a plan for Monza. A spinal injury in 1938 proved a big boon to his art career. Laid up for a year after a fall from a scaffold, Monza began to paint and draw. His wife, Heidi, a devout believer in his talent, struck a bargain with her husband: She would work so that he could create, but Monza better have something to show at the end of each day.

That spousal whip-cracking appeared to work. The collection of Monza's drawings, linocuts, monotypes and terra-cotta sculptures recently donated to the High Museum show an artist who tried his hand at many things. Some, such as bronze casting, were a bust, according to High Museum folk-art curator Susan Crawley. "Really weak. But that's OK. He did enough well."

Monza certainly never appeared to run out of sacred cows to pillory and alternative worlds to imagine. But while so many folkies descend into a vortex of their own peculiar obsessions, Monza (who died in 1984) was an artist who always kept his eyeballs trained on the culture. Early black-and-white linocuts depict an ongoing battle between malevolent institutions and working folk, with the former invariably exploiting the latter. It's Monza's black-and-white work that really sings, allowing for a disturbing collision of human and animal in the black mire of his fluid, morphing compositions.

With the acid-dipped disgust of a political cartoon, the 1955 linoleum block print "An American Tragedy" features one of Monza's real-world apocalypses. Soldiers marching to battle are contrasted with the static icons of the establishment running interference in a Flags of Our Fathers critique of the World War II war machine. It's an image that works as well in Bush-era America as it did in the post-WWII funk of Monza's age. Clergy, military and industrialists were "his primary targets," says Crawley, and his work has more scary men in black robes and crosses than any Luis Buñuel film.

Monza's color-pencil drawings are less interesting — pallid and vulgar compared with the complex mire of his black-and-white drawings and linocuts. "Figure Abstraction," done in 1971 and featuring a body composed of interlocking circles, has the look of a half-cocked, psychedelic doodle.

Sure, Monza also delved into some wackiness during his years in Redondo Beach, Calif. He was consumed with an idea of harmonious exchange between humans and animals that borders on the New Age and conjures up visions of other California fur-huggers such as Michael Jackson. Like so many self-taught artists, Monza's weirdness was best in small doses, such as his "Horse and Rider From Inner Space," a captivating terra-cotta figure of a man in a horned cap and pointy beard whose phallic attire is echoed in his horse's projectile snout.

But no mere dotty, homebound conspiracy theorist, Monza also levied some pointed social criticism in line with his earlier work; he drew monstrous, snaggletoothed fish to illustrate the effects of pollution on California fish. And in the 1970s, Monza did a series of linocuts dedicated to Watergate, complete with a puny, waving Nixon figure skedaddling out of Washington post-scandal.

The longer you stare at Monza's work, the more data emerges. It is easy to get lost, though you might not want to, in these mutating miasmas of animal and human, worldly and ethereal, design and nature, dystopia and paradise.

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