Ángeles Agrela: Fauna
Anat Ebgi, East Hollywood
August 27 through October 15, 2022
By LYLE ZIMSKIND, October 2022
Among the twelve fantastical portraits of young women in Ángeles Agrela’s Fauna exhibition at the Anat Ebgi gallery, the first one you may see walking in the door is “Maelys.” Like all of her peers on display, Maelys’s most striking trait is an extravagantly sculpted, unnaturally colored coiffure. This one is bright pink, complementing the paler shade of Maelys’s lively patterned shirt with its motif of tightly beaded jewels and controlled flames along the collar and button placket.
Maelys is one of several painting subjects with hair styled to create a kind of mask—or, in Maely’s case, something of a cowl, with holes for her eyes to look through, covering the top half of her face. Others have their entire faces (again other than their eyes) blocked from our view. “Libia”’s purple bangs create a helmet atop her head, while the rest of her ‘do is wrapped tightly around her nose, mouth and chin. Cascading down in waves to reach her shoulders, “Juliana”’s sky-blue locks hide her features from us like an opaque curtain.
Whether the face in a given image is shown or concealed, every one of Agrela’s vividly painted character studies radiates with a different woman’s unique identity. In “distracting attention from the features of [their] faces,” the artist has suggested, her work in these portraits manages to “generate extra attention to the other [kinds of] personal characteristics that individuals consciously choose in creating their image.” Only in the act of masking, obscuring or otherwise de-emphasizing the features that typically define what we think someone “looks like” does Agrela express her conception of these women’s essential natures.
And she does convey a lot about each one. Her hair less tightly wound and closer to natural in color than all the others’, “Otilla” sensually holds a tress between two fingers as if ready to pull it open like a rip cord and undo the artifice of her assigned style. The modesty implied by “Yasmin”’s hair arrangement into a head covering and braided shawl, as well as the guileless piety of her devotional heavenward gaze, are belied by that hair’s cobalt blue intensity and the cartoon-paneled power fists on her shirt, along with the psychedelic color pattern behind her. “Inka”’s aggressive orange hair helmet extends horizontally almost beyond the left and right sides of her portrait frame and seems designed to disrupt her surroundings, but her argyle sweater and buttoned-up pale blue checkered shirt are as unthreatening as the barely patterned light purple wall behind her.
Even Libia and Juliana, noted for the virtually complete covering of their faces, make bold self- assertions in their portraits. Libia’s mask of hair may seem suffocating, but her two light blue eyes, and dozens more of them lined up in columns behind her, unforgivingly see right through us and they don’t seem impressed. Juliana’s coif is practically a hood, but the bright pink ribbons at her crown and her grunge-plaid flannel shirt suggest, as Agrela describes the thematic effects of her portraits, that this kind of masking is a strategically deployed resource or “technique” both available “in nature” as camouflage and “used by people to hide themselves among a group or to stand out within it.”
Growing up in the historic Spanish city of Úbeda, Agrela relates that she was surrounded by iconographic Baroque Catholic church portraits of women “represented as saints, as suffering mothers, as martyrs” and that constant exposure to “these models of femininity in a very traditional environment undoubtedly influences my work.” And most what we do see of the faces in Agrela’s portraits is largely solemn, even dour—certainly not breezy or lighthearted. Still, even if they are somehow spiritual or symbolic descendants of the immortalized women in those religious paintings the artist lived among in her early life, the subjects of these portraits are clearly more empowered to transcend or challenge any roles imposed on them.
The Spanish title of this exhibition, Fauna, has a slangish connotation likening a disparate collective of idiosyncratic people to the wildlife population—the local fauna—of a particular area. The twelve women comprising Agrelas’s fauna are undeniably eclectic and distinctive in character. They are also all dynamically implacable in their inexorably self-fashioned identities. WM
Lyle Zimskind writes about arts and culture for Los Angeles magazine and LAist.com and has contributed to the LA Review of Books, New York Newsday and KCET Artbound. He is also a former Managing Editor of the Czech Republic edition of Esquire magazine.