There’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst ... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold onto it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid
The difference between Roy LaGrone and Lester Burnham, the narrator of 1999’s Oscar-winning American Beauty (quoted above), is that LaGrone captures his strange vision of beauty, preserving it in containers as small as a mangled plastic bottle cap or a seashell.
“I had a daily ritual of taking walks,” LaGrone says in the Blue Star exhibition’s artist statement, after moving to Northeast San Antonio in the fall of 2004. “Without fail, I always managed to find tiny objects — remnants of trash.”
LaGrone uses close-ups of these worn-out scraps to frame other photos that might seem equally worthless: an empty parking lot, a construction-crew work light, wet laundry in a slum, an aging beauty shop, a picked-over cotton field, and a desolate space so forlorn and filthy it’s been abandoned by squatters.
But by arranging ghostly layers in a rhythmic dance between the translucent and opaque, LaGrone’s abstract and representational forms have a visual logic as finely construed as the cubist collages of Picasso and Braque.
“These large-scale, computer-generated transpositions are fetishes,” LaGrone notes, “which explore the idea of transforming socially discarded beings, places, and objects into sacred projections.”
Mindful of the alchemy that turns these throw-away elements into visions pulsing with feeling and life, Blue Star’s Project Space exhibition starts with LaGrone’s “Talisman #1 (Will the Circle Be Unbroken).”
The circular yellow object is linked to smaller cylindrical forms, which LaGrone stuffs with seeds, pits, and dirt in a seeming reference to the cycle of life and death. The object’s nucleus, pricked from below, glows like a candled egg in an incubator.
“Ship Log #2515 (Ezekiel’s Vision)” is next. Framed by a ripped-apart red plastic tag whose only purpose in life was to show evidence of tampering, it draws the eye toward a distant spray of light from the surface of an empty parking lot. In this miniature world, the tiny bumps of concrete look like frozen curds of ice on an alien landscape.
“Satellite Studio #1 (Tribute to Noah Purifoy)” pays homage to a California artist who helped heal the wounds of 1960s riots in the Watts area of Los Angeles. It takes a photo of a dusty workshop and encircles it with the jagged teeth of a ripped-apart plastic ring that’s still attached to a squashed red bottle cap.
“Lay Your Head on My Pillow” brings a decrepit folding table sagging on two of its four legs into focus. It curves up like a ski jump from a sea of trash, rags, newspapers, and the filthy pillow at its base. The frame is filthy as well. It appears to have been a little white plastic bottle cap that stood up to a convoy of 18-wheelers and lost badly.
Like LaGrone’s “Beacon #1 (I’m Beginning to See the Light),” the squashed cap seems shaped like an eye, and the things that eye sees are ugly. But by playing with pulses of light, LaGrone once again infuses the mundane scenes with a sort of cosmic energy.
In LaGrone’s “Transporter Terminal 1D,” a 1960s-vintage hair dryer takes on the aura of a device that allows for intergalactic telepathy. And in “Ship’s Log #5240 (Sharecropper Reflections),” a desolate cotton field appears to be submerged beneath the waves or suspended among stars.
LaGrone uses a recurring series of tiny eye-like beads, black stitch patterns, and rusting bits of wire and pipe to unite his images and play with surface and depth. He’s at his best when his subject matter also entices and repels the eye, as with the graceful arch that appears beyond foreground squalor in “Beacon 2 (Havana Blues).”
Bent wire also manipulates the eye in “Koochie Blues (Politics of the Womb).” But the OGBYN table, blood stains, and a glowing symbol of feminine innocence in a trash can are too literal. They rob the composition of the mystery that makes LaGrone’s other works so compelling.