Virtually all the pieces play with various antecedents, identified by the curators as other ghosts haunting the work. This eidolonic crowd includes the ghost of Chicano art, the ghosts of Chicanos who reject the demography, the ghost of the urban Chicano, and the ghost of the avant garde generally. In Carlee Fernandez’s Man photographs (2006), the artist possesses (thereby dispossessing) a series of male icons. Performing an Electral doubling of her dad, she puts on the same clothes, same cocksure stance, same small smile. Holding oversized stills of Dave Mustaine, Bruce Dickinson, Franz West, e.g., over her face, Fernandez’s body is dressed and posed to mirror the masculine (role) model’s postured head. She becomes a likeness of a likeness, a radical form of mirroring that, in this case, literally embodies the feminine within a masculine world of difference.
In his photo-grid The Breaks (2000), Juan Capistran breakdances on a Carl Andre (metal) floor sculpture. Unlike Rauschenberg’s de Kooning erasure, there’s no Oedipal anxiety betrayed in Capistran’s goofball baby brother routine. No art is harmed in the making of the art, and any artistic upset is due to Capistran’s casual commodification and the absence of any meaningful appropriation. It’s L.H.O.O.Q.-lite. By the same token, Margarita Cabrera’s soft sculpture vinyl VW Beetle titled Vocho (Yellow) (2004) is sewn full scale, right-sizing the People’s auto. If this does not exactly cut Claes Oldenburg down to size, it does put consumer culture in welcome perspective while conjoining ’60s Pop Art to Mexican factory work to ’90s indie craftwork in that post-identity art moment in which knitting, pie baking, and making duct tape wallets stood as markers of non-textual authenticity. The same enactment can be seen in Shizu Saldamando’s Goth punk version of arte pano (prison art)–portraits of Siouxsie and Morrissey done on cheap men’s handkerchiefs, standard prison keepsakes. The ephemera of two underground cultures collide, reminding us that our lives are spent making meaning out of transience, gathering our poor and personal souvenirs as proof of time served.
In “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art,” Benjamin Buchloh wrote, “The allegorical mind sides with the object and protests against its devaluation to the status of a commodity by devaluing it a second time in the allegorical practice.”1 This second devaluation is ideally redeemed through the allegory’s new attribution of meaning; the redemptive function of allegory fails when the new meaning is no more or less than a recapitulation of the old meaning, or simply its horizontal extension. So Cabrera’s sculptures fulfill their allegorical function where Capistran’s montage does not–and Adrian Esparza’s appropriation of fliers used by the ’80s hardcore punk band the Minutemen as a critique of U.S. border policies (One and the Same ) and Ruben Ortiz-Torres’s Smog (2006), boardroom-ready paintings done in luxurious lowrider Kamelon Kolors (props to Richard Prince), feel more like the triumph of the indie (quotidian + groove + technique = $$$) over the genuinely subversive. (Though this is not the case in Ortiz-Torres’s Urban Landscape , where the 3-D extrusion of graffito done in a Kamelon Kolors copper-bronze works as a hard and fluid fold of materialized meaning and as an Eastside sotto voce to Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall.)
In a talk on the creation of the exhibit at the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, the Phantom Sightings curatorial team discussed their decision to jettison the term “action” for the term “intervention,” apparently on grounds that “intervention” has more current currency. Apart from logopoetic issues of animation–an action may be performed simply for the sake of the action, whereas intervention implicates functionality or utilitarianism–there are the questions of what is being interrupted, when the intervention occurs, and to what ends. Actions, according to this logic, become interventions to the degree that they retrospectively supplement the larger culture to the greater good. This may be accurate, but feels lousy, as the greater good mostly seems like tagalong sentiment: approval from a position of pre-approval. History has borne out the artistic viability of certain forms of street art, and therefore, we can, in an abundance of good feeling, acknowledge their viability. We like N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) as artifact but don’t approve of the Crip currently at the corner, and condemn the war in Vietnam (though not those who fought or those who called them “baby-killers”). And in this snuggly vein, Asco’s Dadaesque protests have been transformed into comfortably-sized photos on the gallery wall. Asco’s appropriation graffito from the ’70s–signing members’ names to a LACMA exterior (Spray Paint LACMA, [1972, printed 2007])–is the exhibit’s first image. The 30″ x 40″ photographic print is activism as easel art, the movement removed from its confrontational corpus and freshly contained in conceptual cold storage. There is a Citibank ad where a kid paints a mural on the parents’ garage door while they are away. Luckily, Citibank’s cash-back program paid for both the repainting and “plenty of canvases for our son.” The ad header is “It’s hard to appreciate art when it’s not framed.” Just as with Asco’s Asshole Mural (photo of members flanking the maw of a sewer pipe) (1975, printed 2007), this shit is framed.
- Benjamin Buchloh, “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art” Art After Conceptual Art, ed. A lexander Alberro and Sabeth Buchmann (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 29.↵