Sunday, May 15, 2011

and now for something completely different

My semester is wrapping up and I'm in the middle of a bunch of different paintings right now, so more art coming soon. In the meantime...

I recently wrote a review of The Date Farmers' show at Ace for Joanna Roche's contemporary art history class (bitchin' class btw) and I thought I would share it here. The show is up until July, so definitely go check it out. Also a great taco place downstairs, get the baby back rib tacos.

I haven't done a whole lot of art writing, but I enjoy it and I think I will try to do more of it for the sake of versatility.  Special thanks to Kelsey, for unwittingly serving as the comic relief in my review. Enjoy.

New Mediated Gestures: A Review of The Date Farmers

Crappy Cell Phone Picture. Better pictures on Ace's site, linked above.

            Ace Gallery in Los Angeles is so unassuming from the street that a person could easily drive past without spotting it, even if that person was looking for it and especially if that person was me. I drove past it twice, no thanks to my dear friend and completely useless passenger, Kelsey Haugen. We still weren’t convinced we were in the right place until we were greeted at the door by a charming elderly man, who simply said “Ace Gallery, second floor,” and took us upstairs in an old-fashioned elevator. It was late afternoon on a Tuesday and Kelsey and I were the only ones there. Our voices echoed so loudly that we felt inclined to speak in self-conscious half whispers. 

On view was the work of Armando Lerma and Carlos Ramirez, a California duo known as The Date Farmers. The Date Farmers are assemblage artists who incorporate bold, crosshatched drawings, painting, and graffiti-inspired marks with items including: toys, stickers, advertisements, newspapers, comics, poker chips, weapons, cigarettes, lighters, and weathered metal signs. This integration of personal, expressive mark-making with familiar found objects is reminiscent of the mediated gestures found in Robert Rauschenberg’s combines—if Rauschenberg had been Mexican-American. 

The initial impression when entering the exhibit was a bit underwhelming. I didn’t find the drawing style very appealing at first and the collaged elements seemed to be chosen haphazardly. Kelsey eloquently expressed what I was feeling by saying it looked like “they just threw a bunch of random shit together.” But as we moved through the massive space of the gallery, whose rooms seemed to keep unfolding as if they came into existence only as we approached them, the accumulated work began to construct an exciting narrative and a clear voice emerged.  

Through motifs of familiar pop icons, images of Catholicism and desert animals, as well as allusions to crime, gangs, poverty and graffiti, The Date Farmers express a specific facet of the Mexican-American perspective; one which saturates my everyday life as a resident of Southern California, but is surprisingly unique to me in the context of an art gallery. Other motifs including images of circles, a mix of Spanish and English expletives, empty speech bubbles, Native Americans, and figures with empty or blacked-out eyes suggest to me a disillusionment with American ideals.

The installation of the exhibit is fairly conventional, with a few exceptions. The walls are white with the bottom portion painted a dark brown and most of the pieces are hung side by side.  In the East rooms, however, many pieces of varying sizes are hung in clusters, a strategy which I find very attractive and dynamic. There are several instances of objects placed either on top of a hanging wall piece or inside the shadow box which frames many of the pieces. In my opinion this is successful in some places and very unsuccessful in others.  In Black Water, the spray cans on top work really well as a part of the piece, but the placement of Fisherprice TV on top of Guarenteed Laughs just looks as if they ran out of pedestals. The addition of a few installation pieces, including a series of shoes hung on a wire near the ceiling, a corrugated metal movie theater, and a full sized bar complete with tables and chairs keep the presentation of the exhibit from being completely traditional.

Southern Comfort (Hello Kitty), 2010 is a 49 ½” by 49 ¾” acrylic and mixed media panel covered in hundreds of different found images of Hello Kitty. There are stickers, stamps, bits of stationary and even a few nail files, all arranged in a grid-like formation around a large cross-hatched drawing of an young African-American girl. The girl has a deformed upper lip with a split running from her nostril downwards to reveal part of her gum line. Her hair is styled in little poof balls all around her head and her eyes contain no pupils or irises. All of the Hello Kitty images are arranged so as not to overlap with the figure, with the exception of one, which is placed in the center of her forehead. The pink surface of the panel is coated in a grimy brown layer which makes it appear dirty. I was drawn to this piece because it reminded me of a Mexican girl I used to babysit. Her mom was very beautiful and always looked like she spent hours getting ready, but the girl’s  face was always dirty and her clothes were old and the few toys she had were dirty or broken.  There’s something tragic and terrifying about this empty-eyed cleft-lipped girl surrounded by these Hello Kitty products that are so coveted by young girls, yet here they are covered in dirt. This piece seems to me an example of what Armando Lerma referred to in a February 8, 2011 interview with Art Info as The Date Farmers’ use of pop culture icons to “point out injustice, broken promises, and lies.”

Throughout most of the exhibit, the work seems to be grouped together arbitrarily, but one room contains work that deals only with the subject of prison. In this room is a series entitled Children of God, 2010 which consists of three crosshatched graphite portraits, each on a 37 ½” square white panel. The center panel depicts Jesus Christ in a crown of thorns above a strip of red and white reflective tape. His expression is strange and tortured; a few tears run down his face and neck and one of his eyes has no pupil. There are green quotation marks near the right side of his head and small star stickers to the left.  The portrait to the left of Jesus shows a straight-on view of a young man with a solemn yet intimidating expression. A straight row of shank-like objects—pencils, knives, sharpened toothbrushes—is collaged along the bottom of the panel. The right portrait shows a man in profile with a teardrop tattoo near his eye. Below him is a row of lighters arranged by color like a rainbow. Above each lighter is a burn mark in the panel and on the left is a burnt playing card with a colorful grid pattern. The centered placement, angle, and expression of the two men is evocative of mug shots and the shanks and lighters could have been confiscated from inmates. The impact of the three panels together is powerful and unsettling. The correlation of these mug shot images with the image of Christ, along with the title of the series suggests to me that these are people who have been forsaken, either by society or by God.

                The Date Farmers work is not something I am incredibly drawn to aesthetically, but seeing this exhibit was very moving, even transformative for me. After leaving the gallery, I found myself examining a cluster of drilled holes in the wall of the FedEx bathroom with unusual intensity, as if I could imagine those holes appropriated in a piece of artwork. I also felt forced to confront my complex views about this side of Mexican-American culture. I became aware of feelings of fear, distrust, disgust, judgment, and even racism. I think this subset of the Mexican-American perspective is one that I have semiconsciously ignored in my daily life because of those feelings and seeing it represented in The Date Farmers’ work caused me to reexamine my assumptions. The show sparked a lot of interesting conversation between me and Kelsey, who expressed that she was moved by it as well. She said, “I learned something, like, about myself…oooh we should get Mexican food!” And so we did.

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