Young Latino Artists 13: Everything's Going to Be Okay
On view through November 9, 2008
by Alvaro Ibarra
Now in its thirteenth year, the Young Latino Artists exhibition is Mexic-Arte’s annual effort to bring together up-and-coming Latino artists under the age of thirty-five. This year, for YLA 13: Everything’s Going to Be Okay, curator Leslie Moody Castro has assembled work around the concept that our “…moments of vulnerability can turn into our greatest strengths.” A standout in the exhibition, Lupita Murillo Tinnen’s photographic series Looking Inward (2008), comes closest to embodying the spirit of Castro’s curatorial premise. Each photo depicts carefully chosen details from domestic interiors: the corner of a kitchen sink or the edge of a living-room sofa. Tinnen’s photographs are seemingly mundane visual excerpts of everyday life. However, her lovingly rendered colors and textures of tile grout, sun-baked linen and painted drywall transform her subject matter into aesthetic compositions divorced from their original context. Her work evoke’s Amalia Mesa-Bain’s theory of domesticana, a feminism-meets-Chicano approach that looked to glorify the domestic roles of Chicanas through fine art. Ultimately, Tinnen’s beautiful photographs stir a palpable melancholy in the viewer. Just as disaster, divorce, transformation, or change of any kind (even for the purported sake of transcendence or a greater good) can make us long for an idealized past that never existed, that makes us repeat the mantra: “everything is going to be okay.”
While the exhibition includes a few other noteworthy pieces, most of the work displays no special relevance to Castro’s curatorial statement. For example, David “Shek” Vega’s Mexican Standoff stands in high contrast to both Tinnen’s quiet photographs and the curatorial aim of the show. The San Antonio artist displays a love for the artificial, executed in its entirety using spray paint and industrial enamel paint on MDF (a kind of fibreboard that employs toxic formaldehyde resins). It is an aesthetic Tomás Ybarra-Frausto called rasquachismo. The painting itself is a diptych representing two cartoon characters faced off against one another. The outrageous figures are half-man half-rooster, featuring a human’s body and a rooster’s head. Vega’s obvious references hybridize two traditional Latino pastimes: boxing and cock-fighting. The hybrid creatures appear menacing and display their qualities to the viewer through the tattoos on their bodies, brightly colored plumage and equally eye-popping boxing regalia. Despite the fighters’ attempts to get out attention and curry our favor, hybrids are nevertheless looked upon with suspicion and marginalized in society. Not surprisingly, Vega’s painting was exiled to a secluded corner of the Mexic-Arte Museum.
The most compelling work was a performance by Carlos Rosales-Silva entitled Bringing Sexi’ Back. The spectacle began with the artist stripping and methodically covering his rotund body with baby oil. Many in the crowd looked away or chuckled nervously; some onlookers even meandered away. Rosales-Silva salvaged the remaining spectators by dressing himself. However, the new ensemble he donned in a ritualistic manner included a feathered headdress, a beaded leather vest and other Native American clichés. The artist performed this transformation immediately adjacent to an easel bearing a shrouded canvas, promoting increasing curiosity about its role in the act. Rosales-Silva unveiled the painting once fully morphed into his personal. The image on the canvas was the artist’s alter ego, a reproduction of a beefcake Indian chief commonly found on the covers of romance novels. Albeit similarly dressed, posed and glistening, the disparities between performer and representation provoked raucous laughter, like a visual punch line. Certainly, Rosales-Silva’s performance was intended as a joke and laughter was the appropriate response. More importantly, laughter functioned as the cathartic release from the pent up dis-ease onlookers experiences over the course of the lengthy spectacle—functioned as an acceptable reward for gazing upon his otherwise unspectacular brown physique.
Some lack of cohesion is expected due to the inclusive aims of the annual exhibition, but a show revolving around the interaction between strength and vulnerability does a disservice to the specific issues directly tackled by each artist in the show. There are plenty of broad topics in contemporary Latino art, such as racism, religion, immigration, chauvinism, assimilation, et cetera, that can be artistically inclusive and specific enough to make an exhibition culturally and critically relevant.
However, this year’s YLA curator declares: “The artists in this exhibition do not define themselves by the blood running through their veins or their ancestral history, but rather their personal histories.” Viewers could legitimately argue the worth of characterizing the participating artists and/or exhibition as Latino, if it was not to showcase a uniqueness defined by the participants’ specific ancestry.
Moreover, there is no need to make a declaration of distinction when one considers the recent trends in Latino art. An entire generation of Latino artists has actively sought to distinguish themselves from earlier Chicano artists. Most have long-abandoned the formal and iconographic language of Chicano art—from Aztec glyphs and Pancho Villas to low-riders and zoot suits—in a concerted effort to develop work beyond the Modernist tenets of the Chicano Movement. However, these artists are still influenced by their heritage and remain connected to the Latino community.
By eliding the significance of her artists’ background, Castro is also frustrating her audience’s desire to see/explore a given issue through the eyes of a Latino.
Alvaro Ibarra is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at The University of Texas at Austin.