Review: Visions of Angels : * In their ‘Celestial Matter’

Visions of Angels : * In their ‘Celestial Matter’ show, Susan Santiago and Robert Gino offer complex images whose allusions range from ethereal to base, transcendental to pop.

December 17, 1993|
NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times

SHERMAN OAKS — During a visit to Mexico five years ago, painter Susan Santiago took a side trip to a graveyard. There she found several monu ments of angels with their hands clasped to their lips. She knew then, she says, that “I wanted to do something with that image.”

That encounter with angels, and other factors in Santiago’s life since then, have come together to direct her artistic focus heavenward. Ten of her uncommon portraits of angels are on view in the show “Celestial Matter” at the Orlando Gallery. The gallery has represented her work since 1979.

Also on display are 15 mixed-media pieces, most of them collages, by Robert Gino, the gallery’s director. Although he has been an art dealer for four decades, during that time Gino has kept his own artwork much to himself. “Celestial Matter” is his first show. It was Santiago who asked him to show his work with hers because they are interested in the same imagery. And, she said, “he is my best friend.”

In addition to the trip to the Mexican graveyard, Santiago attributes her interest in ethereal beings to several sources, including the death of Orlando Gallery Director Phil Orlando last year and the fact that a house she and her husband are building in Tuna Canyon did not burn in the recent Topanga / Malibu fires.

“Somebody up there is taking care of me,” she said with some comfort and amusement. And while that is so, she is in pursuit of “the meaning of existence.”

“For the last two years, I’ve been thinking about my background–I was raised a Catholic. And lately I’m very interested in medieval and Renaissance art because I think it’s very mysterious. The figures don’t look real–there is a surrealistic, doll-like quality to them–and I’m fascinated by that.”

Regardless of her fascination with those illusory images, her angels possess earthly, human faces and forms. “Dana” is a portrait of assistant gallery director Don Grant’s daughter. The “Bad Angel” is dressed in black leather. Even “Botticelli in Blue”–inspired by one of the early Renaissance painter’s “Annunciation” studies–conveys a substantial presence.

Before she delved into celestial concerns, Santiago was painting portraits of her students at Crenshaw High School. For the past five years, she has taught art history, painting and drawing there. Before that, she taught at Bethune Junior High. Perhaps the human qualities of her angels are rooted in her connection to her students.

“I’m very close to my students,” she said. “I see them as needing direction, help. I really nag them, nag them, push them. I try to encourage them to compete. Two students last year got full scholarships to Otis (Art Institute).”

Gino sees a trademark to her work. The lips and eyes of her figures “confront you, overwhelm you, pull you in,” he said. “Even if the eyes are closed, they have a way of speaking to you.”

Gino’s collages in his own handmade frames are artfully “loaded”–as he put it–with an abundance of materials and images that speak of the stars and the heavens, the base levels of life and everything in between.

“I put all the elements together to express myself in the areas that I enjoy visually and personally,” he said. “There is a dichotomy in the work that is religious and erotic. There is pop culture and historical references. Art history dictated to me. I wanted them to look like they had been done in medieval times and be contemporary. I thought of them in terms of building, constructing.”