So the walls, historical and institutional, come tumbling down. And, too, the wall itself, site of Mexican high modernism, high/low art, border politics and gang throw-downs, is revised by several artists, most notably in the small interior hall supporting Ken Gonzales-Day’s lynching erasure works. Two large erasure images, the soft-hatted heads of a crowd of white folks milling around a conspicuously empty tree, have been placed along two temporary gallery walls. One wall is covered by a large blue/black print, the stasis of the site and the frozen, bruised moment underscored by the constricted palette. The mirror-image on the other wall is printed on mirror-paper. Gonzales-Day’s lynching erasure project surgically extracts the fulcrum-point of the image that the spectacle is supposed to mediate. In the wall/hall piece, the spectacle is recreated, thoughtfully leaving the viewer free to narratively participate as either victim or voyeur, depending where one stands. Some of us have more of a choice than others; still, there’s no dodging the implication of voyeurism in any respectable museum or historical retrospect.
Ruben Ochoa’s What if walls created spaces? (2006) is a lenticular print of a freeway wall as seen from across the freeway. The lightly-tagged wall fades out into an interlaced bank of dirt and grass as you walk towards the piece; walking in another direction causes the concrete to seamlessly reconstitute. It is a flat-out representational piece which undoes flat representation, becoming a meta-abstraction in which the plane of the wall is a screen, porous and fictitious, achingly beautiful, an allegory of melancholy and want. The modernist allegory, as Christine Buci-Glucksmann has written, was the site of baroque melancholy and the miraculous and dangerous feminine.2 The dilations and contractions in Ochoa’s work enact the origamic promise of open space, freedom abstracted, and the threat of closure, freedom obstructed, the folding and unfolding promise and threat of the constant shift in perspective and promise. Everything and nothing lie across the freeway.
This melancholic voyeurism eventually felt like the most politically powerful potential of the exhibition–the familiar, local Chicano peoples on friendly display, strung up in their own latency, against all our walls. A friend said she was not going to see the exhibition because she preferred her history in the Smithsonian. Another one said the show could have just been called “L.A.,” not the poolside Los Angeles of David Hockney or Joan Didion, but the asphalt cool of Brooklyn Avenue and backing beats. Between these two statements lies the discomfiting point that what the institution giveth, the institution taketh away. Phantom Sightings is an institutional work, an avuncular pat on the head, a move that necessarily effaces movement. At the LACMA shop, the show’s requisite tchotchke is a brown bumpersticker taken from one of Alejandro Diaz’s Tiffany’s pieces that reads, “Make Tacos, Not War.” It’s as anti-revolutionary a sentiment as nostalgia, as impotent an objet as a time-clock. For a moment, I wished it had said “fish tacos,” ruding up the old hippie slogan. But then there it was–the melancholic feminine moment, the point where the wall of the institution, being a wall, effaces, giving way to something that is crude and alive, and in this rawness, capable of something that perhaps cannot be finally institutionalized.
Vanessa Place is a writer, lawyer, and co-founder of Les Figues Press.
- Christine Buci-Glucksman, Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity (Thousand Oaks, CA : Sage Publications, 1994), 112-113. In her analysis of Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, Buci-Glucksman maintains that allegorical writing is at once figural writing and the destruction of the figurative; the feminine, as the supreme image, thus marks the abyss between figure and signification, conception and perception.↵