Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Through December 5, 2009
by Nicole J. Caruth
William Cordova’s latest exhibition takes me back to the early days of Kanye West—not the egotistical, cheeky personality who steals the spotlight from little girls, but the gentle genius who recorded The College Dropout. West was highly regarded for his talented sampling and mixing, through which he bridged earlier generations of sound and cultural history with today’s music. Cordova’s first solo show at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. calls attention to his best West-like tendencies. Even so, with laberintos Cordova only sporadically finds his way out of a maze of mediocrity.
laberintos is, appropriately, a sprawling puzzle of interconnected pieces. Individual works and installations, each of their own complexity, frequently point back to the central floor piece laberintos (after Octavio Paz). A diorama composed of upright vinyl record covers, the piece stands for the “existential labyrinth” of Paz’s influential book of essays El laberinto de la soledad. The author theorizes that Mexicans, who have inherited two distinct cultures, pre-Columbian and Spanish, deny one part of their identity to become “stuck in a world of solitude.” Pluralism is Cordova’s mainstay: multiple identities flow rather than clash into one another in his oeuvre.
The caption for laberintos (after Octavio Paz) reads informatively like a didactic text, a footnote on the artist’s use of appropriation as well as his Peruvian ancestry: “Appropriated vinyl records from undisclosed ivy league institution in response to that institutions refusal to return 200 Inca artifacts from Peru after it originally borrowed them in 1914.” Cordova’s account begs the question of the object’s fragility: If the walls of this vinyl labryinth were broken, what adequate compensation could there be to replace these records now rendered rare and precious by his hand? As with his earlier works, a lot rests on Cordova’s titles and captions. This trick is occasionally clever, as with laberintos (after Octavio Paz), but more often wearisome. The clues Cordova’s captions provide aren’t always useful in the moment, leaving the artworks to stand on their own. Some hold up better than others.
Cordova occasionally tries too hard to drive home points of reverence and lineage, sliding from elusive to superfluous. Untitled (sacsayhuaman, mukden, bayon, de libertat), a series of overlapping cardboard bridges (the wobbly suspension variety at the climax of any Indian Jones-grave-robber-type film) with railing fashioned out of imitation-gold chains, hangs from the ceiling; bits of broken chain scatter the floor beneath. From a nearby room echoes the voice of hip-hop pioneer KRS-One: “Get what I’m sayin’ forevah.” A little research reveals the title of this video projection, 18° 6’ 11.87” N, 94° 2’ 24.69” W (decero a la infinidad), to match the coordinates of the La Venta Olmec Archaeological Ruins. You get the idea.
In the sculpture Untitled (lineage), two small book covers encase mounds of Peruvian chocolate; their spines read “Inca” and “Tupac Shakur” in gold lettering. Shakur makes a second appearance in This One’s 4U (p’a nosotros), a sharp (albeit heavy-handed) video installation in which a film about the rapper’s life plays on a TV monitor. The 1984 film about revolutionary Peruvian Indian Tupac Amaru II plays through the speakers. I learn from Cordova’s assessment of the film online that “Black Panther Afeni Shakur named her son, Tupac Amaru Shakur, after the Inca revolutionary as an acknowledgment for common struggle for all oppressed people.” The piece is installed in such a way that viewers must approach it from the back, where raw wood and cables—the innards—are in plain sight. The arrangement seems a metaphor for exposure: uncovering the ever-present link between today and the past, or two sides of the same story. Like watching a foreign film without subtitles, viewers might fail to fully grasp the narrative in these two works. But ambiguity functions remarkably well here by drawing attention to the importance of language (both spoken and visual) in our understanding of peoples, histories and objects.
Untitled (the Echo in Nicolás Guillén Landrián’s Bolex)—one hundred individual works arranged in a side gallery—is a breakthrough moment. The space reads like an artist’s studio, teeming with inspirations and offhand studies; the air is fluid but also bumpy. From this fragmented display of meandering microphone cords, sunbursts and other motifs, I sense that something big is on the artist’s horizon.
In recent group exhibitions and his own curatorial endeavors, Cordova has shown signs of getting too comfortable, working within the boundaries of early recognition rather than pushing them further. If I was troubled about his future (much in the way I am about Kanye West’s) the show at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. is a flashing light (pun intended) that Cordova is headed in the right direction.
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.