Visual Arts

Through the Lens Violently

Photographs of murdered men and women in grocery store parking lots. A picture of an enormous man made of cell phones and DVDs. And a guy in a karaoke bar.

Not images you'd expect to see at the Heard Museum. But the Heard, like the Native cultures it showcases, is a real -- though under-recognized -- player in the contemporary art scene here in the Valley. For years, the museum staff has struggled to make us aware that there's more to Native art than just pottery and baskets. And now, in "picARTE! Photography Beyond Representation," a show curated by former MARS member and current Chicago resident Robert Buitrón, the Heard is exceeding expectations.

By showing something like Los Angeles artist Ruben Ochoa's series "Unidentified Shopping Cart Incidents" -- in which various Chicano men and women have been "killed" (in staged scenes) by seemingly innocuous grocery store accessories, the bar has been raised to a new level in terms of depicting violence. What's really interesting, though, is that most of the controversy about the show has centered on the fact that the artists featured are all of Mexican ancestry. The Heard is widely recognized for its exclusively Native American focus. But the expansion to include artists whose cultural affiliations can be traced beyond the border is not unprecedented. In fact, the museum held a series of Chicano Art Invitationals in the late 1970s that contributed to the formation of MARS, Movimiento Artistico del Rio Salado, one of Phoenix's first artist cooperatives created as an exhibition space to showcase Latino artists. In 1992, the Heard featured contemporary New Mexican Hispanic artists in "Chispas!" ("Little Spark"). And even today, the alcove spaces near the entrance highlight historic and contemporary traditional Hispanic carvings and paintings from the museum's collection and a few local artists (including another former MARS member, Larry Yañez, known for his not-so-traditional comments on terms like "Hispanic," "Chicano" and "alien").

Why do these pieces, and the annual Spanish Market that takes place near the Day of the Dead, seem to sit easier with critics and audiences than the intense, 21st-century cultural statements in "picARTE!"? I think it clearly goes beyond the fact that the artists featured are Latino. Granted, violent imagery can be a hard sell. Exploring issues surrounding violence in our society is popular. Have you seen Bowling for Columbine? Movies like that can be a method for many of us to make sense of senseless violence. But what the artists in this exhibition are doing is bringing to light many long-standing issues of a quieter violence and, in many cases, no violence at all, but, rather, everyday life. And that can be much harder to stomach than an over-the-top Michael Moore movie.

Ochoa's shopping cart series portrays our fascination with violence and questions reality by presenting staged scenes as real. "The blood and death in the photos are only a captured moment," he says in the exhibition's brochure. "Which lens is more reliable . . . the lens of a camera or the lens of the viewers' eyes?" The pieces are scattered around the exhibition space in what seems like an attempt to remind us of their existence even after we've moved on to other works.

In addition to a lively series of portraits of other Chicano artists presented as large-scale film strips, Celia Alvarez Muñoz put together the show's only installation work. The piece centers on a photo panel that documents the (true) serial murders of women and girls in Juárez, the border town near El Paso, Texas, through police reports and a powerfully simple photo of the bottom half of a woman's legs in the sand. It is hauntingly dramatic and to the point. If she had stopped right there, it would have been enough. Unfortunately, Muñoz was compelled to expand upon it and she ended up creating an installation that comes off as contrived and overdone. The stagelike scene incorporates gaudy, sparkly fabrics hanging from the ceiling surrounding a sandbox with women's shoes and denim cut-offs with vaguely sexual forms on the crotches.

Some of the most intriguing works in the show are offered by Ken Gonzales-Day. In an untitled series of large-scale digital prints, he explores skin in intense detail. The strongest work is a mix of skin types in an attempt to "transform difference into sameness." I'm not sure if everyone will get that, but the visual effect is captivating, making you want to actually feel the surface. In a more subtle series, Gonzales-Day photographed what appear to be big, beautiful specimens of oak trees. What they are, however, are documents of something completely unexpected -- lynchings in California. The "Hang Tree" series involved the artist's research and travel throughout the state to photograph these sites of death whose history has almost been lost.

One of my favorite pieces in the show is one that many visitors avoid. Delilah Montoya's "Doña Sebastiana" series includes two creepy photo portraits on the outer wall of a video room, a flashy movie poster luring you down its hall, and a well-executed 10-minute video that depicts the voice of God trying to convince Doña Sebastiana that she is perfect as the figure of Death. Montoya's skilled transitions -- between the beautiful Diva that Sebastiana sees in herself and the skeletal face she wears as Death -- are mesmerizing.

Ultimately, the works in "picARTE!" are about the unreality of photography -- how the camera lens, like our own eyes, can distort what really happened. And the flak over showing Chicano (or even the use of that term) art at the Heard questions that same reality -- who is really Native and how does this work relate to issues of cultural identity?

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Gina Cavallo Collins