On ViewTransmitter Gallery
January 8 – February 14, 2021
You could say that curator Eva Mayhabal Davis has been using a “patchwork” framework for years—gathering artists, cultural workers, and creatives of color to converse and share ideas since she started her project El Salón in 2016. The aim of El Salón was to center artists responding to societal systems of power. Patchwork seems like an adjacent extension to those gatherings and a way to share critiques and solutions that live in the art of diasporic, brown, or Indigenous artists.
Most literal to the theme of Patchwork—and the most evocative works in the show—are the textile paintings by Manuela Gonzalez. A recognizable pattern of baby flora diffuses across a gridded field of fabric remnants in her largest piece in the show, Untitled (2020). Bathmats, curtains, vintage dresses—sometimes gifted, sometimes sourced in thrift stores—are cut, reassembled, and sewn across a canvas. Recycled fabrics that once protected feet from a cold tile floor or adorned bodies are used to form the surface layer. After stiffening the material with gesso, color block squares are applied in pastels, greys, and blacks, followed by an arrangement of florets painstakingly rendered in acrylic paint across the textural landscape. Her painterly skill and controlled precision are displayed in the balanced, smooth floral movement across discarded dishtowels and holed knitted blankets. Delicate details like tassels poke from the edge. Her trained hand reveals an ode to what’s often an invisible labor of care—the clothing for children, sheets, curtains and other elements of a domestic sphere often handpicked or made by the matriarchs of families. Using this signature style in two large paintings and three smaller framed works in the show, Gonzalez revives an aesthetic training from her youth, proving how much power the aesthetics of care actually hold.
Recent Yale MFA painting graduate Esteban Ramón Pérez has three sculptures in Patchwork that function like faux totems conjuring a lost cosmic past. Each piece is made of feathers, carved wood, and silver studs erected into versions of crosses said to revere what the gallery calls “Indigenous spirituality.” Pérez mentioned to me how his grandmother was thought to be Indigenous but no one knew from where—a common story in Mexican-American families. The piece Cruz de Madera (2020) is embellished with metal studs from the artist’s old punk attire, an engraving of the word “Chale,” and a profusion of pheasant feathers. Each sculpture juts plumage, which is a bit awkward as the usage of genuine feathers outside of ritual is not considered kosher to many Indigenous communities. But maybe this oversight gives insight into the work: Pérez sourced the plumes from a hometown manufacturer who sells down feathers to his father’s upholstery shop in Los Angeles. Much of his work uses leather and other materials from his father’s shop as well. More than any investment in Indigenous philosophy, Pérez seems informed by skills learned from the family business. He told me the three assemblage constructions come from a logic of problem solving inherited from what his father called “Mickey Mousing it.” The aesthetic strategy has roots in the early Chicano art concept of “rasquachismo” that was loosely defined by art historian Tomás Ybarra-Frausto in 1989 as “an attitude rooted in resourcefulness and adaptability yet mindful of stance and style.” So, though we are pointed to a missing heritage of Indigenous ancestry that many diasporic people experience, the pieces actually speak more to familial legacy and an enduring cultural identity.
Collaged silkscreens by Micheal Two Bulls, a Oglala Lakota artist, use the familiar Pop art style of screen printing to critique systems of knowledge seen as definitive. The tongue-in-cheek usage of primary colors and repeated inclusion of the standardized American alphabet seem to mock the aesthetics of American education. As we know, textbook bias in K-12 education is only one of the ways inaccurate accounts of American history are spread. History is constructed, just like the white picket fences separating the viewer from turn-of-the-century photographs of a woman in traditional dress in Lakota Landscape (2017) or the towering heap of buffalo skulls in Historical Documentation (2017). You’d think photos such as these might offer more truth, but I’m reminded of the misrepresentation that Diné/Navajo scholar Dr. Jennifer Nez Denetdale cautions us to consider: often, historical photographs of Indigenous peoples were taken for the consumption and gaze of the dominant culture. Even these historical photographs are complicated in a landscape of popsicles, ice cream, and grape sodas. The struggle to arrive at truth amid the systems of power and competing narratives seems to be reconciled through carnivalesque absurdity.
The three artists in Patchwork are Colombian, Chicano, and Oglala Lakota. This matters because they are being grouped here due to their confrontation of a history of fragmentation from the perspective of colonized people. But more widely, it matters because there is a gaping lack of representation for these perspectives in the art world. Acknowledging that historical revisionism and post-colonial narratives can be seen in the work, it is important to also expand the lens beyond a history of subjugation. There is a freedom lost when the gathering is always centered on resilience or fixing. The labor of outlining “alternative histories,” or offering solutions should not constantly fall on the shoulders of the marginalized. The work gathered in Patchwork is a testament to the richness in nuance and memory these artists own as their truth.