LOS ANGELES — When people discuss their understanding of the violence underlying the logic of contemporary United States society and capitalism, they often point to a moment of awakening, a period of time when they started to see — and could no longer unsee — the way the system operates.
Standing in front of artist Linda Arreola’s latest range of abstract works, I found myself switching between two views. One is what I could immediately see: the formal beauty of them, with sharp lines, bold colors, and compositions that build from her early explorations in abstraction. As she notes in her artist statement, she’s drawn by the shapes of circles and squares to explore “the humble icons of a grand spirit.”
But in the heat of 2020 to 2023, when so many of us were locked down, Arreola began to incorporate words and architectural elements into her art. It is this second view of her work that caught me by surprise. Drawing from Mesoamerican architectural forms, she continues her explorations of abstraction but inserts words and phrases that, in my mind at least, pithily describe the brutal logics around winning and ageism — U LOST I WON, LITTLE GRAY HAIRS, EYE ON PRIZE.
The artist’s newest body of paintings, mostly acrylic on canvas, makes up Linda Arreola: Abstract Wanderings from the LA Borderlands 2020–2023, on view this month at Avenue 50 Studios in LA’s Highland Park neighborhood. In “Uvalde Children” (2022), for example, strong vertical lines and boxes with dot matrices look like the entrance to a gate or temple. But when the word “CHILDREN” emerges on either side of the canvas, the composition begins to look like the entrance to a school — the very same one that police delayed entering as the shootings occurred.
In “U Lost / I Won” (2021), the four architectural windows contain X’s and O’s, like the kisses and hugs one might send a defeated opponent. And “Dump” (2022) reads like a vertical flag, with gray, red, yellow, and black channeling toward, well, a dump. In the context of a show about the borderlands, it made me think of the city’s illegal dumping problem, which spiked during the pandemic. “Instead of the hopeful aspiration or spiritual contemplation of earlier works, these paintings are tuned into an anxious awareness of numbers, units, and amounts,” curator Nicolas Orozco-Valdivia writes in the exhibition catalogue. “Rather than meditate or swirl or come together, they triangulate, multiply, and accumulate.”
As I circled the gallery to take in the art, I noted once more the back and forth between appreciating their formal composition and then absorbing the small messages sprinkled in. I imagined Arreola wandering in her mind during lockdown, just like me, looking out and asking how such a brutal world could continue, and why it’s so hard to unsee. If we understand spirituality to include the bold exploration of the shadows’ interaction with what’s on the surface, this next stage of her work is just as spiritual in my mind, perhaps more so.
Linda Arreola: Abstract Wanderings from the LA Borderlands 2020–2023 continues at Avenue 50 Studios (131 North Avenue 50, Highland Park, Los Angeles) through July 29. The exhibition was curated by Nicolas Orozco-Valdivia.