BEYOND THE BLACK VELVET CANVAS
Given the recent increase of ugly--and often violent--anti-Mexican sentiment in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement, it took a lot of huevos for Scottsdale Center for the Arts to mount "Cruzando Fronteras/Crossing Borders." The center should be saluted for its brave farsightedness in exhibiting what has turned out to be a cutting-edge undertaking. "Crossing Borders" is a project that aesthetically explores the unique cross-fertilization of two distinct cultures that often butt heads. The result of Mexican and American mating is a border culture pulsating with its own life along an artificial dividing line that only came into existence in 1848. Before that date, let's not forget, the American Southwest was a part of Mexico. The art in "Crossing Borders" is as diverse in approach and attitude as the 1,952-mile stretch of terrain that theoretically separates the two countries. It includes work by painters, sculptors, photographers, performance artists, writers and filmmakers along both sides of this vast expanse. At the hub of the project is "La Frontera/The Border," an exhibit born of the collaboration of the small, privately funded Centro Cultural de la Raza of San Diego and that city's publicly supported Museum of Contemporary Arts--a cooperative feat of no mean proportion in and of itself. "La Frontera" is at its best when it rises above rhetoric and probes universal human issues that transcend factional politics. Carmen Amato's dignified, black-and-white photographs of a woman crossing the Rio Grande in a rickety pontoon, shoveling trash as a sanitation worker and fixing the engine of a truck bigger than she is speak of the disintegration of the family, a strong tradition in Mexico, and of the changing roles Mexican women have been forced to assume at the El Paso/Ciudad Jurez border. Texas artist Celia Muoz's poignant, mixed-media piece "Which Came First, Enlightenment Series #4" deals with the often torturous and embarrassing experience of learning English grammar. "Mestizaje I," a sculptural installation made of headless cast torsos covered with charred cornhusks by Arizona-born Patricia Ruiz Bayon, is evocative of the Mayan myth that man is made of corn, a staple of life in Mexico. Ensenada-based Estela Hussong's muted canvas "Ruinas, pescados y choyas" relies on the rugged Baja coast for both its subject matter and its restrained palette.
"La Frontera" showcases a number of artists who have been involved in the Border Arts Workshop/El Taller de Arte Fronterizo (BAW/TAF for short); this rough-and-tumble group of politically active Chicano, Anglo and Mexican artists, including at one point Victor Ochoa, David Avalos and Guillermo Gmez-Pea, was responsible for the creation of a real aesthetic along the San Diego/Tijuana border beginning in the mid-1980s. Much to the chagrin of the U.S. Border Patrol, which would often unwittingly get front-row seats, BAW/TAF would stage galling performance pieces aimed at exposing human rights violations and racist activity occurring at the border--right on the sandy beach where the two countries meet.
Of course, humor seduces when nothing else can. Victor Ochoa's revamped loteria cards lampoon stereotypical border characters such as "El Surf" and "El Marine" (tourist types who plague the entire length of the Baja peninsula), "La Migra" (Mexican slang for the border patrol) and "La Criada" (the archetypal Mexican cleaning lady). And "Ramona: Birth of mis.ce.ge.NATION," a multimedia installation by David Avalos, William Franco, Miki Seifert and Deborah Small, still makes me snort, even after seeing it for the fifth time. Avalos first gained notoriety for his San Diego donkey-cart caper back in December 1985, when, with the permission of the General Services Administration, he placed a replica of one of Tijuana's typical tourist carts in front of San Diego's federal courthouse. Instead of featuring the usual Aztec warrior clutching the usual fainting Aztec princess, Avalos' cart sported a picture of a border-patrol cop arresting an undocumented Mexican worker. U.S. District Court Judge Gordon Thompson ordered the cart removed for nebulous security reasons.
But for me, the real stars of SCA's "Crossing Borders" project are two concurrent satellite shows, "Alfred J. Quirz: Hystorical Narratives" and "The Temple of Confessions," a performance/installation by Guillermo Gmez-Pea and Roberto Sifuentes. Quirz's show is sequestered behind freestanding walls, with appropriate warning signs as to content, so that small children and those who are prone to the vapors might be spared its vitriolic and often gruesome content. I saw two perfectly coifed ladies walk out of the show, uttering, "Yecch, gross." But then again, ladies, history is sometimes very gross.
Born and raised in Tucson, where he is currently a professor of art at the University of Arizona, Quirz takes a razor-sharp look at, among other momentous events, the discovery of America by Columbus (the father of genocide and ruler of greed and ignorance," to quote Quirz) and the Spanish conquest of Mexico. And after looking at his work, there's no question as to how the artist really feels about these historical episodes. Quirz's cartoony canvases may look like a raucous cross between Red Grooms and Mad magazine, but they have a serious, punch-to-the-gut quality more characteristic of German Expressionists Otto Dix and Georg Grosz, whose savage wit was often leveled at German fascism.
The Tucson artist's 12-by-24-foot, map-shaped "Novus Ordo (New Order)" is a mammoth statement about the chaos of current world affairs--and no noteworthy person or event is spared Quirz's irreverent gaze. Ronald Reagan stands with Idi Amin, Yasir Arafat, Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Mao Tse-tung, Buddha, Krishna and Jesus Christ, while syringes, kabuki actors, satellite dishes and Pepsi logos jockey for position. A beleaguered Uncle Sam holds up a sign reading "Will Work for Food." Even George Washington is assailed in the self-explanatory "Washington Inspects the Hemp Crop," in which the Holy Father of Our Country goofily displays a plastic marijuana plant, much to the delight of an equally goofy black slave in a tricornered hat. The Catholic Church, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Quirz's Aztec forebears fare no better. There's something to inspire, amuse and/or offend everyone here.
"The Temple of Confessions," which was a live performance piece for three days running and will remain as an installation for the duration of the show, is perhaps the most provocative part of "Crossing Borders." Considered one of the finest performance artists working in the United States today, Mexico-born Guillermo Gmez-Pea and his collaborator, Roberto Sifuentes, have created a surreal, chapel-like environment. In this space, viewers become participants, revealing their innermost fears and feelings about Mexicans, Chicanos and Mexican culture in general.
Sifuentes, who was working on making a permanent installation of the visually engaging piece before flying back to Los Angeles, described the performance in an interview: "For five and a half hours each day of the three days, Guillermo and I stood in these glass cases, which are like those in Mexican churches containing santos [statues of saints], performing ritual acts. I was dressed like a pre-Columbian vato [gang member], draped in chains and with tattoos all over my face. "Guillermo, who played San Pocho Aztlan, was dressed like an androgynous conchero with leopard bikini underwear and a black bra showing from under his Aztec costume, which included a Stetson with feathers coming out of it and political buttons," says Sifuentes. Also included in the performance, he says, were two women dressed as "nuns": "They were there to encourage the audience to reveal their feelings to the 'saints,' who were a reincarnation of Mexican stereotypes of the noble savage and the gang banger. "Audience members 'confessed' to the caged deities," Sifuentes continues, "either verbally into a microphone located at a kneeler in front of the cages, or in writing, which they deposited into something that looks like a church offering box. "We warned people that they were being taped and their confessions could be used as part of the installation, though we gave them the option of wearing a mask and having us alter their voices to protect their identities." Public reaction, he adds, was better than the artists expected. "We were amazed at the response we got. The gallery was filled all three days--people would stay for an hour at a time, confess, then drag a friend in to participate. We've remixed the audio, so that the best of the confessions are being played and will be updated as more people 'confess,' this time to sculptural effigies with masks made by Zarco Guerrero, a local artist from Mesa."
Listening to the tapes is like listening to poetry. People are disturbed, confused, elated, ashamed, hopeful; they confess to revulsion or to a lack of understanding about the images used in the performance and what they really mean, as well as to their personal prejudices. But the confessions themselves are the beginning of the process of understanding. And like a real confession, they signal the desire for forgiveness and a resolve for a better tomorrow.
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