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Many unkind words and nasty looks have been exchanged in recent years over the ethnic and sex-and-gender principles of curatorial selection. Some artists declined to be shown in Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and El Museo del Barrio in New York in 2008, refusing to be grouped by their race and ethnicity. The exhibition Our America: Latino Presence in American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2013 was criticized for being too general, too all-inclusive, and not edgy or “Latino” enough. Seeking to sidestep the potentially thorny issues around identity, curator Rebecca R. Hart at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) themed Mi Tierra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place around the subject of land. Still, the Spanish phrase Mi Tierra in the title does point to the Hispanic or indigenous background of the younger and midcareer artists in the exhibition, all hailing from the American Southwest and California. Hart’s curatorial wall text stated that the works “address the complexities of what it is to be Latino in today’s America.” In Hart’s project, identity is a decoy rather than a theme, and the idea, it seems, was to reflect on how the artists address a bundle of burning issues as well as to shift artistic representation to reflect the cultural character of the region. The sculpture, painting, video, and mixed-media works of the thirteen artists who created site-specific works for DAM’s fourth-floor gallery targeted socially engaged themes of colonialism and migration and provided poetic ruminations on the notion of home. As such, the exhibition served as both part of and a precursor to Denver’s Biennial of the Americas, which took place in September 2017.
The exhibition theme was timely in light of Donald Trump’s election and the attendant populist rhetoric of building a wall between the United States and Mexico. Approaching Latino and Latin American artists through the theme of land and home is something that has been in the air, as it was also the subject of the exhibition Home: So Different, So Appealing, which opened at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA as part of the 2017 iteration of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA.
For its part, Mi Tierra opened, refreshingly, with the abstract sculpture Ever since I was little it looked like fun (all works 2017) by the Los Angeles–based Ruben Ochoa: three zigzagging, deformed steel poles protrude upward as if brutally yanked from a concrete pediment, taking chunks of concrete with them. This formally austere abstraction has a rich social content and reflects the artist’s ongoing interest in highway dividers, chicken-wire fences, stiles, and other ubiquitous urban structures that spatially connect and racially divide the neighborhoods of the Los Angeles metropolis. Such social-content abstraction was one of the strongest parts of the show, coming from a rich tradition of critiquing so-called mainstream US-American abstraction, minimalism, and conceptualism by infusing them with a sharp social content grounded in a Latino and Latin American perspective too often deemed “peripheral.” Gabriel Dawe’s yarn sculpture Plexus no. 36 consists of hundreds of colorful threads arranged in a full-color spectrum and stretching diagonally from a window toward the tilted gallery wall, crisscrossing at the center so that the spectrum is disrupted. The result is a three-dimensional geometric abstraction, an enigmatic apparition of material color that leads and misguides the eye. Dawe’s work somewhat evokes Adrián Esparza’s earlier experiments with yarn and Mexican serapes. But if Esparza was crossing the quotidian with the history of abstraction, Dawe engages the gendered aspect: as a male artist he consciously uses a medium traditionally associated with female crafts. Xochi Solis created a series of images titled We Were Not Always Fallen from the Mountain in which she collaged prints from magazine pages she collected in the US and Mexico and painted abstract patterns over them. Large cutouts (about ten feet in diameter) of hand-colored vinyl were laid over prints depicting plants, soil, or peasants working the land. The figurative imagery was leveled by blobs of abstract color that, while physically flat, created objects that strangely appeared voluminous and protruding. They descended down the museum’s atrium wall like colorful boulders that were falling from a mountain. Ramiro Gomez created three collaged paintings and two outdoor bronze sculptures featuring Lupita, a janitor working at DAM whom he met. His use of mundane ready-mades—a cleaning bottle and trash bag attached to a cardboard support—and the bold gestural quality of his abstract backgrounds felt refreshing and straightforward, if somewhat simplistic.
Several other works in the show, however, were less successful. In some, the artists could have taken formal expression further, as in Jaime Carrejo’s One-Way Mirror, a paneled glass screen installed in a narrow corridor between two massive video projections of a beautiful desert landscape straddling the US-Mexico border. The glass-paneled wall looked like a hybrid fashionable design object or downtown storefront and did not have the ephemeral quality of the two video projections. Other works, such as Carmen Argote’s Live/Work, resorted to familiar artistic strategies such as substituting self-archiving for artwork. Consisting of a metal screen with attached sketches, photographs, magazine pages, printed emails, and other ephemera from her studio, Live/Work aimed to reflect her process of artistic research. And others, like Dimitri Obergfell’s engaging and humorous Federal Fashion Mart, a hybrid space somewhere between a Mexican mercado and a botanica (a spiritualist or psychic’s parlor), could have honed their statements into something with a sharper political edge.
Daisy Quezada’s and Justin Favela’s sculptural environments were equally beautiful in their visual appeal. Favela, a Las Vegas native, plays with stereotypical notions of Mexico and its perhaps most famous cultural icon, Frida Kahlo. Using the papel picado technique employed in the production of piñatas, he made a replica of Kahlo’s Mexico City home, Casa Azul, cleverly choosing not to copy from the original but from its pop-culture reincarnation in the Hollywood movie Frida (2002). The artist made piñatas of the courtyard’s palm trees, yuccas, cacti, peacocks, monkeys, and Precolumbian ceramics. In the background, stretched across three walls, he recreated a Mexican landscape borrowed from another popular visualization of collective and nationalist notions of Mexico—José Maria Velasco´s famous Views of Popocatépetl and Iztacchíhuatl from Atlixco, painted in 1877. Fittingly, Favela’s witty work has multiple layers of meaning. But the work’s mere friendliness and picturesqueness makes it oscillate between the witty and the banal, and more toward the latter than one might want. Quezada’s project Desplazamiento/Contención (Displacement/Containment), on the other hand, takes the middle ground between the socially laden abstractions and popular-culture commentaries on view in this exhibition. She built a concrete yard in which she placed a metal fragment of the US-Mexico border wall, a cargo box with unglazed porcelain sheets (which turn out to be replicas of immigrants’ clothes donated to her in Denver), and minimalist concrete blocks for viewers to sit on as they listened to overhead speakers playing a recording of immigrant children telling their stories. Although her objects bear political meanings, the strength of the work lies where it is less expected: in the poetry of her materials—concrete, rusty iron, wood, unglazed porcelain paste—whose brutal nature dissolves in their aesthetic, lacelike, fragile handling.
One of the most engaging—and most problematic—works in the show was a video and four related oil paintings titled Erasure by Ana Teresa Fernández. The work was triggered by the infamous and gruesome murder of forty-three students from the Mexican town of Iguala on their way to protest against the Mexican state in the fall of 2014. To express their solidarity with the victims’ families, Facebook users placed a black-square avatar on their personal pages. Fernández’s video borrows from this act of blacking-out and mourning as the camera travels in close focus between her head and toe, showing a paintbrush gradually covering her bare body with a sticky layer of black paint. The motion slows down and accelerates, and so does the ambient low-frequency audio, until the only light objects we see are the whites of her eyes. The four paintings attempt to extend this idea of mourning, erasing oneself, and painting oneself black in view of the collapse of human dignity and reason. But painted in a hyperrealist photographic style, they present seductively erotic images of the artist’s arms, neck, face, and sensually open mouth. This erotic yet also narcissistic gesture seems self-indulgent and at odds with the gruesome event the artist wants to comment on. Fernández, it seems, exhibits rather than erases herself.
The works in the show have strengths and weaknesses, but rather than judge them all by “quality,” one needs to see them more as a reflection of artistic investigations in progress. The exhibition also signals the ambitious and dynamic approach of curator Hart (a relatively recent arrival at DAM), which challenges established institutional practices by opening the space up to younger and lesser-known artists who come from the region and openly and poignantly engage with its daily life.
Lecturer, Department of Visual Arts, College of Arts and Media, University of Colorado Denver
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