Quite tellingly, de los Reyes has cast Ahab and Ishmael from the same bronze. Underneath their surface aspects, they represent two close points along a continuum of quintessentially American characteristics. The deathly, patriarchic Ahab is cannibalistically insatiable, while native son Ishmael, eager for adventure, readily accepts his own potential sacrifice. As disturbing as Ahab may be, de los Reyes does not assign blame with this work. Nor, however, does he exclude himself from the justifiably troubling implications in the entirety of Ahab’s America.
Artists who take upon themselves the role of social commentary must contend with an underlying idealism that steers them unfailingly toward return to a mythic orderly universe. The challenge to charting another course is complicated by the nature of language. Umberto Eco has commented that in time of crisis, “…language, having already done so much speaking, becomes alienated to the situation it was meant to express.”24 The artist who wishes to address the condition of crisis must also recognize that “if he accepts this language from within, he will also alienate himself to the situation.”25 The artist often seeks to rectify his dilemma by “dislocating language from within,” in a bid to “escape from the situation and judge it from without.”26 But bonds of language are inescapable:
I violate language because I refuse to express, through it, a false integrity…but by doing so, I can’t but express and accept the very dissociation that has arisen out of the crisis of integrity and that I meant to dominate with my discourse. There is no alternative to this dialectic. …All the artist can hope to do is cast some light on alienation by objectifying it in a form that reproduces it.27
Believing that desirable solutions to crises must ultimately arise from collective enterprise, Eco proposes that each work of art be “open” in the same sense that debate is “open”28 and allow for numerous interventions on the part of its viewers. Art suggests “…a way for us to see the world in which we live, and, by seeing it, to accept it and integrate it into our sensibilities.”29 By opening a work up to an unlimited range of possible readings, the artist disrupts its idealistic impetus towards continuity. It is in discontinuity that the possibility of a “unified, definitive image of our universe” is called into question.30 A similar dynamic is at play in allegory, which, by its fragmentary nature, offers an “antidote to the totalizing impulses of art.”31
In Ahab’s America, Tony de los Reyes engages several artistic forms as means to think about and learn from his relationship to his subject. Speaking to viewers through quotation, his allegories serve to confess his inability to disentangle his subject and its critique from the legacy of his artistic and literary predecessors, as well as that of the collective American imagination. Those notions of Yankee might, ingenuity, and freedom born of the 19th century—and that suffuse Moby-Dick—are still pretty heady stuff. It is difficult not to become intoxicated by the novel’s prose even when your approach is critical. But you cannot return to a place that never existed, even in Melville’s time. Indeed, an acknowledgment of this false legacy and its seductiveness becomes a meta-textual motif of Ahab’s America. In the polysemic volley between form and commentary about form, de los Reyes provides his viewers with an opportunity to engage in the kind of free play that Eco advocates.
Clearly, to Tony de los Reyes, our past legacy (and its implications for the future) is as terrifying as it is romantic. Lately, a great number of truly tragic and destructive actions have been perpetrated in the name of our national interests. In our current international conflicts, we Americans all are without doubt or exception complicit. As we prepare to enter a potentially new sociopolitical era, it seems appropriate to reconsider openness as a basis for introspection and action.
Kristina Newhouse is curator of the Torrance Art Museum.