"La India del Pueblito"

Alfredo Ramos Martinez, La India del Pueblito, ca. 1930. (Courtesy of the Pasadena Museum of California Art / August 19, 2013)

Lester Bowie, the late Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter, once dissected how Louis Armstrong purveyed his art in American culture: "The true revolutionary that's out waving a gun in the streets is never effective; the police just arrest him. But the police don't ever know about the one that smiles and drops a little poison in their coffee."

Bowie might have had Alfredo Ramos Martinez, one of the pioneer modernist Mexican painters, in mind.

If he's not as famous as Rivera, Kahlo, Orozco or Siqueiros, Martinez's work is worth knowing. A new show of his drawings and paintings is at the Pasadena Museum of California Art — "Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martinez in California" (through April 20) — shows a mature stylist removed from his native country who continued to draw on the people and land of Mexico for subject matter and inspiration.

Diego Rivera's work often read like Communist party tracts, Frida Kahlo's surrealism obsessed on her infirmities, Jose Orozco's expressionist imagery screamed in clashing angles, and David Alfaro Siqueiros painted savage critiques. Martinez (1871-1946) ennobled the Mexican peasants of the countryside and city streets. Though he studied in Europe and embraced modernism, he most often worked in a folkloric style of representational images: simplified shapes, monochromatic colors or localized color. The result was a series of powerfully simple images whose angles and planes show a sublime sense of design.

As a student at the National Academy of Fine Arts, Martinez bridled at the confines of the studio and plaster cast studies. He helped found a plein air school that emphasized working in and observing from nature (Siqueiros was one of his first students). He was named director of Mexico City's National Academy of Fine Arts in 1913.

He repeatedly chose the peasant class to depict, and he did so in a casually heroic mode. Harvesters, flower maidens, field workers, street vendors and rifle-toting revolutionaries populate his imagery. Yet the idealization of his subjects was cut with an austere modernism. "Study for Monte Alban" (1934) is an elegant art deco design. "Los Charros Del Pueblo" (1941) is a pastoral landscape, but the depth-of-field and juxtaposition of hot and cold colors is far from naïve. Dry-brushed surfaces over contrasting shades make for richer colors.

Martinez moved to Los Angeles in search of medical care for his daughter, who had a bone disease. He seems to have had a complicated view of the United States. William Randolph Hearst's mother had underwritten his study trip to Europe, and he clearly valued American healthcare. Not long after he arrived, Martinez had solo shows at the L.A. County Museum and the Assistance League Gallery in Hollywood; he showed in other settings, too, around town and in San Diego.

Large drawings in crayon and chalk on portico-shaped paper may have been studies for the stained glass mural Martinez executed for St. John's Church in downtown L.A. Catholic subject matter brought out the classicist in Martinez, as a drawing of nuns and friars line up like a frieze, with Greek columns in the background. Like Orozco, he appears to have seen the church as a cut above the mania for human sacrifice found in the ancient Mayans.

At the PMCA, there are many paintings and drawings on vintage pages of the Los Angeles Times. Depictions of downtrodden women carrying burdens appear standard on their surfaces. But they're painted over print reading "Milady's Beauty Column" and such.

In 1945 Martinez was commissioned to paint a 100-foot mural by artist Millard Sheets — on his way to becoming the influential art maven of the Inland Empire — at Scripps College in Claremont. Some accompanying work, possibly influenced by Martinez, by Sheets and three other SoCal contemporaries is a nice bonus to the show.

What: "Picturing California: Alfredo Ramos Martinez in California"

Where: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena.

When: Through April 20. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

More info: (626) 568-3665, pmcaonline.org

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KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.