"Pocket Full of Posies," a disarming, arresting exhibition by Walla Walla artist Juventino Aranda, has punchlines that land with the slow, crushing force of actual grief. At the Frye Art Museum through Sept. 23.

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Exhibition review

First, walk into the Frye Art Museum and drop a few dollars in the donation bucket — if you feel like it. (The Frye is free.) Then, look to your left.

You will see a long hallway and, at the end, a painting: black letters in a font that recalls bones or old, East-L.A.-style graffiti, reading: “Every-thing is a rich mans trick.” Walk a few steps down the hallway and look up. You’ll see a pair of Converse low-tops, cast in bronze, slung over what looks like a drooping power line.

Welcome to “Pocket Full of Posies,” a disarming, arresting exhibition by Walla Walla artist Juventino Aranda at the Frye — his first solo museum show.

We all know gallows humor, but Aranda’s punchlines land with the slow, crushing force of actual grief.

Take “America (El Dia que Llego la Llorona),” a massive vela — that iconic Latin-American candle in a glass tube, usually decorated with images of a protector-saint or deity — that looms over every human in the room. Its promise of illumination is almost burned to the bottom.

“There is security in having light,” Aranda said in an interview. “My family in Mexico mostly uses oil lamps, and there’s the anxiety of ‘I don’t know if we’ll have enough oil to keep the lights on for the next evening.’ In religious candles, when they burn out, there’s the anxiety of ‘oh, will we still be protected?'”

“America” is thick with references: the light of hope, the yearning for supernatural protection in tough times and, of course La Llorona, a phantom from Mexican folklore who haunts rivers, howling for her drowned children while looking for living children to snatch into her ghost world.

As some versions of the story go, La Llorona’s husband left her. One day, while walking with her kids along a river, she sees him with a younger woman. In a fit of jealousy and rage, she threw her children into the river, where they drowned. She is wronged, but she’s also done wrong (echoing the Greek story of Medea, a jilted woman who also killed her kids), stuck in a tortured crucible of guilt and rage — a painful feedback loop, Aranda said, that has an emotional resonance with the fraught relationship between the U.S. government and its most recent immigrants.

“Like the Day of the Dead, La Llorona has arrived in America,” Aranda added quietly. “Sometimes the American Dream looks like it’s burning out.”

“Posies” is full of earthy, textured objects that are tempting to touch: the giant candle, exquisitely embroidered jaguar eyes or a pot of posies on black velveteen, a Pendleton blanket that hangs from a stainless-steel collar like it’s being lynched. Aranda made that from rejected scraps that, he said, “weren’t good enough — the fibers were dyed and created in Oregon, sent to the Pendleton mill in Washougal, Washington, and if they don’t meet specifications, they get sent back. It’s like they’re born in one place and then deported.”

Its title: “Beauty in the Age of Innocence (A Silver Lining Stranglehold).”

Some artists hate writing or talking about their work, but Aranda is a genius at the dance between objects and text.

One of his starkest punchlines comes in the form of a tacky mirror in one corner, which seems straight out of a cocaine party in a tastelessly glitzy Miami hotel room circa 1985: etched with a dumb sunset, plus silhouettes of dumb palm trees and clichéd seagulls.

I puzzled over the mirror (“what’s this too-slick thing doing here?”), then read the wall text and laughed out loud. Its title: “Carry Yourself with the Confidence of a Mediocre White Man (Mar-a-Lago).”

When I told Aranda I’d laughed, he chuckled softly: “Good, good. I wanted a southern Florida, 1980s vibe. Shiny décor, out of place. Donald Trump has been in the business of screwing people for so long — plus, Miami was a hub of cocaine, and the president is saying immigrants are all drug dealers and rapists and so forth. If it wasn’t for people’s yearn for that drug, it would never exist in the U.S., but then the blame falls on the countries of origin and the trade routes, which happen to go through Mexico.”

Drug-trade violence, he added, partly explains why so many Latin Americans are seeking asylum in the U.S.

Aranda was born in Walla Walla in 1984 to a father from Nuevo León (he had the Mexican equivalent of a middle-school education) and a mother born to Mexican immigrants in South Texas (she had a high-school diploma). As a teenager, Aranda worked with his father tending richer people’s lawns and gardens. Some of those rich people were nice, offering them glasses of water and use of the restrooms. Others were jerks — of either the snobbishly aloof or browbeating variety.

He was an indifferent high-school student (“I felt unstimulated; I didn’t like the rigmarole you had to go through”), but eventually made it to Eastern Washington where he had his big, I-wanna-be-an-artist revelation. A professor noticed Aranda drawing in class (he doesn’t recall the exact title, but it was something about religion or ethics in the U.S.), and suggested he turn in a visual essay along with his written final.

The result: a photomontage triptych about self-destruction. One panel had a revolver with six bullets. The next featured a six-pack of beer. The third riffed on 666, the Biblical “number of the beast.”

“Sometimes, I think the government just wants people like us to kill ourselves off, to self-destruct,” Aranda said. “That’s essentially how I felt at that moment. And nothing’s really changed in America. Everything seems to be getting worse.”

He graduated with a degree in fine art and, after years of jobbing — landscaper, cashier, bouquet arranger and delivery driver for a florist — he landed at the Walla Walla Foundry, one of the town’s semi-secret glories. Its clients include big shots like Jenny Holzer, Yayoi Kusama, Jeff Koons, Kehinde Wiley, Paul McCarthy and Maya Lin.

Those artists like Walla Walla, Aranda said, because they can work incognito: “In the grocery store, nobody knows who they are. Nobody asks to work in their studios. You can get from the grocery store to the hardware store in five minutes, but Walla Walla is actually in the center of it all.” Spokane, Seattle, Boise, Portland — each is just a few hours’ drive away.

Several of the “Posies” artworks are framed in corrugated cardboard — an homage to his mother, who’d buy him prints of athletes, cars or whatever his young self was interested in, but wanted to keep them in their packing. “She said: ‘Let’s not take them out of this cardboard so they stay in pristine condition.’ ” In Aranda’s child world, an image surrounded by cardboard was something precious.

One of the most arresting pieces in the Frye show is a large white flag (5.125 feet by 9.625 feet) made of cotton shirting, with a carefully embroidered white-on-white ensign from the Mexican flag: an eagle fighting an angry, fanged serpent on a prickly cactus. The bright white cloth fits the precise dimensions of U.S. government burial flags for politicians and soldiers. Its title: “Lay Me Down in a Bed of Roses (When I’m Gone).”

“Roses” is a briar patch of references: disastrous U.S. military interference in Latin America; a nice old Walla Walla widow with rose bushes, which her dead husband prized, that Aranda used to tend alongside his father; the shirting material that flows through sprawling maquiladora towns like Ciudad Juárez; the thorny demands of being a person of color in the U.S.

“You’re never fully white enough to be fully assimilated,” Aranda said. “Then you’ve got your own culture saying: ‘If you do this or that, you’re whitewashed.’ If that day comes, when I become robbed of my own culture, the day I am a whitewashed American, it’s like: ‘Bury me. I’m gone.’ “

“Roses” is on loan to the Frye from Gabriel De Santino, a cosmetics entrepreneur who grew up first in Mexico, then as the son of migrant laborers in the U.S. “Juventino has a different sense of humor not everybody would get,” De Santino said. “Not dry, not macabre — I don’t know exactly how to explain it.”

I’d humbly suggest that Aranda is laughing through tears.

The final twist comes when you stumble out of “Posies” and into the Frye’s permanent collection of exquisite oil paintings, with its stern-looking white men and smiling, rosy-cheeked Dutch peasant girls working in the fields — plus all those coquettes. After Aranda’s dose of colonialism and its legacy of pain, the oils take a more sinister turn.

“Here I Am” (circa 1910), by Leopold Schmutzler, is a Frye favorite — an insouciant, seductive woman holding a flower, staring at the viewer with heavy-lidded, “come-hither” eyes.

In his latter years, Schmutzler threw in his lot with the Nazi “Blut und Boden” (“Blood and Soil”) artists. According to the German Art Gallery, Hitler bought one of his 1940s paintings — of happy-looking “farm girls” — for 7,000 Reichsmark.

Adjusting for 1940s currency conversion and current inflation, that’s $50,679.

I’d always fancied “Here I Am.” But after walking through “Posies” and past Schmutzler’s flirt, I had the automatic thought: “Yeesh. Empire can look sexy — when you’re on the winning end.”

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Juventino Aranda: “Pocket Full of Posies,” 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday, through Sept. 23; Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; 206-622-9250, fryemuseum.org