Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement
Louise Lawler’s Sappho and Patriarch (1984), a photograph of a statue of Sappho and a bust of a Roman patriarch, famously asked, “Is it the work, the location or the stereotype that is the institution?” Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement is the first group exhibition of Mexican American artists at LACMA since 1974, and the largest such exhibition in LACMA history. It will be enjoyed by many schoolchildren, who will learn something about contemporary art, but who may not learn the deeper lesson, the answer to Lawler’s question: it is the work and the location and the stereotype that is the institution. Phantom Sightings is an institutional work: the show is about the art of making art history.
The exhibition is tightly curated by Rita Gonzalez, Chon A. Noriega and Howard N. Fox. Twenty-six artists are represented by 106 pieces of art, though the show is dominated by fewer than 10 of those artists, most noticeably Juan Capistran, Carlee Fernandez, Christina Fernandez, Ken Gonzalez-Day, Ruben Ochoa and Ruben Ortiz-Torres.
Both identity-based exhibitions and period surveys pose particular curatorial problems. Too much ordering becomes simplistic at worst, didactic at best. Too little runs the risk of individual works getting lost in the wash of history or watered down by the presence of the larger community. The Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibit at the Geffen in 2006 dumped a generation’s process and product (approx. 120 artists, 400 pieces) into more or less uncut space with all the curatorial finesse of Costco. It was inelegant, an inelegance that was an elegant refusal to order feminist work. The times were messy; long live the times. Like history in the present tense, Wack! audiences had to forge their own ways and meanings from a glut of things unified only by threads of common experience. Individual pieces either held their own or fell unnoticed by the wayside. That so many of the pieces thrived amid such warehousing was testament to their charisma and the curator’s leap of faith. By comparison, the Phantom Sightings space has been carefully tailored with an eye for flow and against any sense of de trop. Too, unlike the sprawling muck of Wack! or the Brooklyn Museum’s Global Feminisms (2007), which included pieces such as Cathie Opie’s big fat dyke Madonna and child (Self Portrait/Nursing, 2004) and Ryoko Suzuki’s bloody facial Bind (2001), there’s nothing in Phantom Sightings to make the stodgiest uncle uncomfortable or flutter the feathers of anyone’s aunt.
According to the catalogue introduction, the goal of Phantom Sightings was to consider the emphasis in recent Chicano art (i.e. art after the Chicano art movement) on concept over representation and “social absence rather than cultural essence.” But the curators favor not dematerialized, high-concept works that might literalize Chicano cultural absence, but pieces of allusive representation, figural play and high craft. The exhibit is a palpable display of material essentialism. Every object is an object; almost every object is delightfully optical. Delightful in both senses–unrelentingly likeable and lush, and progressively less illuminating. Like a show-off god, Phantom Sightings wants to make up for all its omnipresent absence–what Harry Gamboa, Jr. (member of the 1970s Chicano art collective Asco (asco is Spanish for nausea) called the “phantom culture” of urban Chicanos–by way of representative excess.
These excesses are chockfull of individual pleasures. There is the pleasure of the plane, such as the large landscape photographs of Delilah Montoya that depict in crystalline color abandoned migrant camps and desert water stations, sites where the landscape seems freshly scraped. What is left is the detritus–a pink backpack, a black boot, a plastic jug–the raw weep of the permanently dispossessed. There is the pleasure of the play of wit found in many of the pieces, such as Alejandro Diaz’s performance piece series Breakfast Tacos at Tiffany’s (2003), in which he stood outside the Fifth Avenue establishment with hand-painted cardboard signs such as “Mexican Wallpaper,” “Tacos 50c,” and (dressed as a mariachi player) “Available for Speaking Role in A Major Motion Picture,” transforming the acme of high-end consumer culture into just another store a guy could stand outside of hawking other stuff. And the pleasure of the two colliding, like Adrian Esparza’s Untitled (2006), gridded color lines emanating from or resulting in a hanging serape, happily weds folk craft to Sol LeWitt. LeWitt is echoed again in Danny Jauregui’s series Stage Set for a Riot (or, Whatever Happened to Mt. Vesuvius?) (2006), drawings that resemble slatted architectural sketches. Jauregui’s work is porous; his abstracted sides are open where LeWitt’s were closed.