Art Seen: National

MI TIERRA // DENVER ART MUSEUM

By Brandon Sward

The Denver Art Museum describes Mi Tierra as “site-specific installations by 13 Latino artists that express experiences of contemporary life in the American West.” Although it’s unclear what exactly is “site-specific” about this exhibition, many of its artists are indeed unpacking the history of the Western US. For Claudio Dicochea (San Antonio), this history stretches back quite far, all the way to the 17th and 18th centuries. Songs of the Event Horizon consists of a wall of paintings that recall the casta paintings of New Spain, which visually described the hierarchical system of racial classification used by the Spaniards to socially rank mixed-race people. Maybe we are not as far away from these taxonomic impulses as we would like to think.

Ana Teresa Fernández, Erasure 4 (performance documentation), 2015 Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 in. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco © Ana Teresa Fernández

Ana Teresa Fernández, Erasure 4 (performance documentation), 2015 Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 in. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco © Ana Teresa Fernández

Some of these artists push even further, trying to get the audience to feel some of the weight of being Latinx in the US, if only for a moment. In the installation One-Way Mirror, Jaime Carrejo divides the museum space in two, with one side displaying an image of Mexico and the other of the US. Standing on one side of the mirror allows one to see through, whereas standing on the other side only allows one to see oneself. As a metaphor for the US–Mexico border, the piece functions beautifully, those on one side see whom they might join and those on the other only see themselves reflected back. A similar move occurs in Desplazamiento/Contención (Displacement/Containment) by Daisy Quezada. A box toward the middle of the installation contains porcelain clothing, preserving belongings discarded by immigrants in a way that emphasizes their ephemerality—fragile as china. Materially, the porcelain recalls the imperial ambitions of Portugal into China and the straps fastening the box to the packing pallet upon which it rests are covered in silver leaf, a New World resource. Towards the back is an actual panel of the US–Mexico border fence, through which one can see the box as well as the rest of the museum. As a place, the border is where the racial and national differences between the US and Mexico are most acute, a potency Carrejo and Quezada deftly exploit.

Justin Favela, Fridalandia, 2017 © Justin Favela

Justin Favela, Fridalandia, 2017 © Justin Favela

Rather than focusing on the experiences of immigrants themselves, Justin Favela explores the historical resonances of the geography of the Western US. The installation Fridalandia (2017) consists of a large “mural” of piñata paper, referencing Mexican artists José María Velasco and Frida Kahlo, the latter of which lends the piece her name. Within the landscape is a recreation of the patio garden of La Casa Azul, the birth and death place of Kahlo, as it appears in Julie Taymor’s Frida. By placing one of Mexico’s greatest artists in a landscape evoking the Western US, Favela traces the Mexican diaspora back to its source and underscores the potential continuity between these two groups by creating everything out of one of the materials most evocative of Mexico.

Ramiro Gomez, Lupita, 2017. Acrylic paint and plastic spray bottle on cardboard 49 x 83 in. © Ramiro Gomez

Ramiro Gomez, Lupita, 2017. Acrylic paint and plastic spray bottle on cardboard
49 x 83 in. © Ramiro Gomez

In a related meditation on binationalism, Dmitri Obergfell offers his Federal Fashion Mart (2016), modeled after Mexican markets in Denver and Mexico City. The installation gathers together the potentially contradictory strands of Mexican identity, allowing them to vibrate with one another in a productive tension. Simultaneously referencing Catholicism and Cholas, statues of praying hands are bedecked with long, manicured nails. Although Christianity is oftentimes associated with respectability in the US, one corner of Federal Fashion Mart houses a shrine to Santa Muerte, a Mexican folk saint often associated with drug traffickers, prostitutes, and gang members. In another affront to respectability, shiny car grilles recall the customized vehicles of low-rider subculture.

For all of those who exist between worlds, there are also those who don’t exist at all. One of the ways this is tackled in Mi Tierra is through the work of Ana Teresa Fernández. In Fernández’s Erasure (2015), a documented performance of the artist painting her body black in solidarity with the 43 Mexican students “disappeared” in Iguala on September 26, 2014. While Fernández is right to condemn the extralegal actions of the Mexican government, Fernández’s decision to articulate her critique through the artificial darkening of her skin unearths an entirely different set of historical inequities, namely the legacy of blackface minstrelsy. Arguably more than any other color, black has a whole host of potential significations, and it is a tall order for an artist to pick and choose from among them.

Fortunately, there are more productive examples of how to give voice to the silent in Mi Tierra, such as Lupita (2017), a series of pieces by Ramiro Gomez. Made after the artist met Lupita Velazquez, a janitorial employee of the Denver Museum of Art. Although the work is about another, it is also in a sense about the artist’s own family (Gomez’s own mother works as a custodian at a public school). Lupita calls our attention to the all-too-invisible labor that makes our society function, labor which people of color all-too-often perform. Despite its shortcomings, Mi Tierra poignantly presents those caught between cultures, between spaces, between languages, and between identities. Though the show includes only Latinx artists, the stakes are much higher. Due to our present political moment, Latinos in the US might be especially—even uncomfortably—aware of their ever shifting place in the world. But what if they are just canaries in a proverbial coalmine? The increasing forces of globalization mean we might all have to struggle with the boundaries of our communities, perhaps sooner than we might expect.

 


Mi Tierra runs at the Denver Art Museum through October 22, 2017.

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