Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Through July 11, 2010
by Michael Bise
Cruz Ortiz, beto the bear (siege tower), 2010
For complete caption see image gallery
I happened to visit Perspectives 170, an exhibition of Cruz Ortiz’s work curated by Toby Kamps at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, on a Thursday, during a student tour. At first I was annoyed. Kids kind of drive me nuts. I considered leaving and coming back another day, but in the end I let myself be swept up in a crowd of elementary school children, all legs and arms and voices, as they poured out of a yellow bus and charged into the CAMH.
I followed the class, which was being led by the students’ teacher and a CAMH tour guide. They stopped in front of a series of Ortiz’s watercolor drawings of cartoon characters named Beto the Bear, Randy the Radio, Coyote Girl, and Devil Girl. The guide introduced them as friends of Spaztek.
“Who’s Spaztek?” a little girl asked.
“Spaztek is the artist’s alter ego. He’s the one who made all these things,” replied the guide. “Do you know what an alter ego is?” A boy raised his hand.
“Like Bruce Wayne and Batman?”
“Yes, like Bruce Wayne and Batman.”
Of course, for students of Batman, the great debate has always been over which identity is the alter ego, and as I looked around the exhibition I wondered similarly where Ortiz ended and Spaztek began.
The guide asked the kids what the drawings reminded them of. In a snide aside the teacher said, “Well, they look a lot like what I see in class everyday.”
The group then moved to a series of screenprinted words in Ortiz’s — or is it Spaztek’s? — trademark Spanglish. A few of the Hispanic kids translated some of the words for the rest of the class. But judging by their excitement and occasional laughter, they all seemed to understand, without translation, that the Haiku-like texts were a little sad but ultimately funny and uplifting.
Finally they came to a sculpture made from a green fifty-five gallon drum called Manny The Necio Knight, another of the Spaztek’s friends. Attached to either side of the drum were pieces of wood. The kids were told they could bang on Manny a little bit. Suddenly the gallery was filled with the loud reverberations of children banging on a metal drum, punctuated by nihilistic laughter at the sheer loudness of it all. The teacher and the guide soon became nervous, and as soon as each kid had an opportunity to give Manny a wallop they were quickly shuttled up the stairs. As they left I imagined that Ortiz, a high school teacher and father of three, would have been happy with the kids’ reception of his work.
Finally left alone in the exhibition, I began to think more about the notion of the alter ego in the context of the children’s reaction. Would it be possible for Ortiz, loaded up with the universal baggage of adulthood, to make this work without the character of Spaztek? Would it be possible to transform the devastating reality of an African tent city into the fantasy world of camping tents and flashing lights that he created on the gallery floor without filtering it through the eyes of a naïf creature like Spaztek? And who is Spaztek? Kamps writes in the exhibtition’s catalogue essay that Spaztek is “part Aztec warrior, part spazz, and part low-tech, motorcycle helmet-wearing spaceman…” More than that though, Spaztek seems to be the creation and reflection of a child.
Ortiz’s work has often been written about in the context of multiculturalism and political action. While both of these notions have a strong presence in his work, on that Thursday, I saw Ortiz’s exhibition through the lens of the children’s stories I grew up with like Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, and Charlotte’s Web. Without the presence of the kids on the day I visited the exhibition, I’m not sure what my reaction might have been. The cynical, critical 34-year-old might have carried the day. By contrast, through Spaztek, Ortiz seems to be able to speak to those eternally optimistic desires that most often find vibrant voice in children. The question, of course, is whether Ortiz, or any artist, can reawaken the idealism of the child in the mind of the adult. Watching the children interact with Ortiz’s work, I realized that I was an outsider looking in on their world. Perhaps, at least for me, that vibrant voice has been too long buried.
Michael Bise is an artist living and working in Houston.