The cholos she photographed in East L.A. have their rites, too, but in Iturbide’s images of young men and women (and their babies), the rituals have come partly unstuck from the kind of ancient underground stream of meaning preserved among the peoples of La Mixteca and Juchitán. The women of Juchitán have their traditional dress, and the 1980s gang-bangers of East L.A. have their own costume — jeans, sleeveless T-shirts, sometimes hairnets, always tattoos. They and their girls flash gang signs, and in one picture so does, or so it seems, a babe in arms. Approve or not, that’s community. If there’s something missing in all this, it’s that the culture the photographer presents is more caught up in display than in piety or observance. The tattoos, the custom-job muscle cars, the hard-case attitude — so many of the Zapotecas look happy: the barrio toughs work hard to look like severe, closed-down outsiders — all involve decorative surfaces. Though even this culture reveres its own back-in-the-day traditions, especially the zoot-suit pachuco culture of the 1940s that bursts from beautifully orchestrated murals its self-styled successors sometimes pose against. “I insist on astonishment,” Iturbide says. Yes, indeed. Her goat and Juchitán pictures have prepped us to see past the hand signs and affectless stares to the skeleton and blood-fed tissue under the skin.
The “Flatlands” portfolio that resulted from a trip through the American South shows off Iturbide’s formalist gifts in the wooly half-tones of a haystack, or a farm-stand backed by mealy gray skies. In our South she finds her Mexico, in local cultures like cigar-making and beekeeping. In North American settings she’s still seeking her gods. She makes scrappy landscapes in Mississippi and Louisiana look like the cactus gardens she photographed in Mexico City for her El Jardín (The Garden) series. And her ongoing inquiry into feminine presence and power results in a shot of another poster icon, Marilyn Monroe, “overseeing” through window glass an American boy. Though it contains many representative images and portfolios, this exhibition is really just a sampler of the achievement of one of the most steady, incorruptible artists of our time.
Danza de la cabrita: Fotografías de Graciela Iturbide (The Goat’s Dance: Photographs by Graciela Iturbide)
J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles
Through Sunday, April 13. For additional information, call 310-440-7300.