Museo Alameda, San Antonio
Through June 14
by Laura Lindenberger Wellen
Only a few angry apparitions here, the phantoms in Phantom Sightings are invoked by artists who prod presence and absence to conceptualize what it means to live in an urban space, to be young, to have a complicated relationship to one’s identity in the United States, on the border, in connections to the past. Sharing an ability to play with historical precedents and categories, these artists tease the seriousness of the art world, drawing from the work of artists in the Chicano Movement while often walking away from overtly political models. Punk is at play, but with space for works about border trauma and violence to resonate with heartbreaking pathos.
On the front cover of the Phantom Sightings catalogue, Christina Fernandez’s photograph of a Laundromat, part of her series Lavandería, shows no trace of human presence—lending itself to an assumption of emptiness. As the photograph wraps around the book, though, a partially-obscured figure appears. Throughout the Lavandería series, in corners, behind pillars, always faceless, people are captured in mundane moments. I am sure there is a poetic metaphor to connect this anonymous person to the systematized marginalization and economic exploitation of Mexican Americans in the United States, but there’s no need to burden these moments with this trope. Fernandez doesn’t seem to expect you to make this jump either: the photos are as much about enjoying the graffiti covering the Laundromat windows as they are about the night, the brightly lit washing machines, and the partially obscured people who are living their lives and doing their laundry in these urban, ubiquitous non-places.
Ken Gonzales-Day’s work is also about who is present and who is absent. Drawn to his old postcards and photographs, I initially saw them as articles of nostalgia, perhaps treasures culled from antique shops. Pulled in, I wondered what these crowds of people were doing. And then, in a gut-felt instant, I realized. In Erased Lynchings, Gonzales-Day’s removal of the violated bodies of lynching victims left my eye to roam, searching through the crowds and looking for some evidence of monstrousness. And yet, the images also disallow such simplistic readings of evil. In looking, I became a spectator of the crowd—a witness to its ugliness, cloaked, as it was, in community entertainment, vigilante “justice” and summer picnics. The combination of absence and presence is profoundly unnerving.
Other works irreverently send up art’s canon. Photographs of Juan Capistran break-dancing on a Carl Andre floor sculpture, for instance, draw on guerilla performance art and urban dance, literally on top of the cold heart of minimalism. In One and the Same (2005), Adrian Esparza pulls a loose thread from a serape, fashioning the string into a wall composition. The string outlines the forms from an Audley Dean Nichols painting of 1922, View of El Paso at Sunset, using the colors of the serape to refashion the landscape of El Paso. (Remember those school projects of stretching strands of fabric across a pegboard? Yes, string sculpture abstraction via serape!)
The 1970s and 1980s linger with the curators’ inclusion of Asco, an L.A.-based conceptual and performance art group that emerged from the student movements, race riots, and Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Asco became a Chicano avant-garde of sorts and a precursor and influence for many of the other works in the show. Patssi Valdez’s film Hot Pink (c. 1974), saturated with pink tones, also acts to historicize youth culture in L.A., with its shots of young, heavily made-up men and women, hugging, touching, kissing with Warholesque disinterest.
Many of these artists are grappling with the ghosts of the Chicano past and the problems implicit in identity-themed shows. Cruz Ortiz reportedly expressed reluctance to be included in “another Chicano show.” But this is not just “another Chicano show.” This is a show that notes its indebtedness to Chicano artists of el Movimiento and then moves lyrically, wickedly, laughingly away from any expected imagery, instead getting at the fantastic complexity of a group of people united as much by their urban and artistic contexts in the 2000s as by their complex relationships to the categories of Mexican-American or Chicano. The ghosts of the Chicano Movement and of Mexican American history in the United States linger in the galleries, definitely; Phantom Sightings makes it clear, though, that those phantoms not only leave an important legacy, but also inform a complex and exciting future.
Laura Lindenberger Wellen is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Texas at Austin. She is currently writing about Southern artistic debates and communities during the 1930s.