Coke Wisdom O'Neal
Mixed Greens, New York
Through May 25, 2009
by Nicole J. Caruth
Coke Wisdom O'Neal
Karla Galvan, 2009
C-print, 36 x 29"
In the latest iteration of Coke Wisdom O’Neal’s The Box series, The Indian in the Cupboard seems an obvious, though unfortunate, reference. O’Neal began shooting his Box series portraits in New York City almost four years ago. When he began the project in Manhattan, he photographed friends, family and, with a little help from Craigslist, eager strangers. But every passerby was welcome to step inside this outdoor structure and have their picture taken. The resulting portraits, which are free of digital manipulation, bring to mind Lilly Tomlin’s rocking chair character “Edith Ann,” and the 1980s cartoon The Littles. Sitters become miniature curiosities and the gallery the proverbial cabinet.
The current exhibition at Mixed Greens was shot on location in San Isidro, Texas. O’Neal’s photographs of the local populace seem contrived—a pictorial cliché of a Southwest border town inhabited by Mexican laborers; gunslingers; a Catholic priest, and a bullfighter (to name the most prominent of O’Neal’s subjects). A documentary video reveals that this might not simply be a city slicker’s portrayal base on preconceived archetypes: O’Neal has photographed nearly half of the community of San Isidro. (The selection on view at Mixed Greens is said to be a representative cross section of the entire set.) They say that every stereotype is based in some truth. But stereotypes like pictures are limited portrayals of people that must be unpacked to find their meaning and often buried agendas. The irony of O’Neal’s wooden apparatus is that it meant to do just that: to expose the absurdity of the categorical boxes that we use to identify and place one another in society. But the box project, initially humorous and quirky, has taken on a dubious anthropological dimension.
In an earlier body of work, O’Neal secretly photographed people’s medicine cabinets. In The Box series, his sitters appear to be the objects on the shelf. Assorted attire reads like the distinct packaging of pill bottles and beauty products. The undersized appearance of the subjects forces a near gaze, an up-close examination that feels like an attempt to read the fine print. Each portrait is titled after the sitter; a few props are the only other markers of individual identity. Leandro Zuniga and Manuel Colunga pose with a weed-whacker, lawn mower, shovel and rake. One of them holds the rake upright, more like a military weapon than a gardening tool. He stands dignified and stares directly at the camera. His pose recalls the pitchfork-holding farmer of Grant Wood’s 1930s painting American Gothic. In contrast, Vincente Mendoza stands casually in the corner of the box as if retreating from the sun, or attempting to conceal himself from view. Two middle-aged men, Javier Pena, and Blue Lanam, pose with their rifles. Pena points his gun directly at the viewer, while Lanam cradles his like a newborn baby. Most odd and ornate of O’Neal’s portraits is bullfighter David Renk. He stands in an ostensibly routine pose, dressed in full regalia. I anticipate the dramatic sweep of this matador’s bright pink cape across his lanky body, but it is its own entity, propped in the corner of the box. This is likely symbolic of Renk’s retirement from the sport (another detail that is given away in the short recording).
The last piece of the exhibition—a cross between an amateur documentary and a bad music video—points to a common problem: failure to discern when video enhances a show, and when it would be better buried in a time capsule. What the photographs left me to imagine about the subjects—voices, mannerisms, demeanor, etc—the video quickly confirmed or annulled. If there was a tinge of hope that these portraits might challenge fixed ideas of people and place, here, O’Neal regresses by playing right into them. As Blue Lanman steps up to have his picture taken, he retorts, “I want this picture to look good, so I can sign it and send it to Barack Obama … I want him to know what a real god damn gunman looks like.”
Nicole J. Caruth is a freelance writer and curator based in Brooklyn. A regular blogger for Art21, her writing has been published by the Studio Museum in Harlem, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, NYFA Current, CUE Art Foundation, and Gastronomica. Her personal blog, Contemporary Confections, merges two of her greatest loves: art and sweet foodstuffs.