On ViewEl Museo Del Barrio
March 13 – September 26, 2021
To enter Estamos Bien is to enter the Twilight Zone: “a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind” to quote Rod Sterling. Curators Rodrigo Moura, Susanna V. Temkin, and Elia Alba have composed a wild mélange of Latinx art, one that connects the viewer directly to the complexities of Latinx heritage in the context of the United States. Thus, our experience of the show and its 40-plus artists, like the experiences of the artists themselves, is a never-ending journey between worlds, a twilight zone where we can’t tell if the sun is rising or falling.
Estamos Bien derives its title from a work by one of the great artists represented here, Candida Alvarez (b.1955, Brooklyn). The curators visited Alvarez in her Chicago studio where she showed them her double-sided “air paintings,” works painted on PVC mesh in ink, acrylic, and enamel and hung on freestanding metal frames so to be seen from both sides. Alvarez explains in a short interview in the bilingual catalogue that she began the painting after her father’s death and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017. She included in the painting the words “Estoy bien” (I’m okay), her stoic answer to questions about her native Puerto Rico after suffering both personal loss and natural disaster. The curators realized that if they made “I” into “We,” they had their title. So yes, “the kids are alright”—that is, surviving—but the weight of personal suffering and systemic subjugation, now exacerbated on a collective scale, is enormous.
Despite the exuberance and the socio-cultural-political vehemence expressed throughout Estamos Bien, there is an air of melancholy. We feel, inevitably, a sense of loss in so many of the works—loss of family, community, a past life, even a loss of the cuisine that defined a childhood. The latter is the subject of Francis Almendárez’s humorous and heartrending video installation Dinner As I Remember (2016). Almendárez (b.1987, Los Angeles) narrates a slideshow that takes him and us through family dinner, with pictures of people eating the people’s food in, as he puts it, “a communal and sacred tradition.” Again and again, the artists gathered here strike a consistently commemorative note. Wherever we look, we find a lost past; not a vale of tears, but of memories to be transformed into art.
We see the elegiac mixed with social protest in Carolina Caycedo’s site-specific Genealogy of a Struggle (2017). Caycedo (b. 1978, London, raised in Colombia) paints a family tree on El Museo del Barrio’s wall with, as she says in her catalogue interview, the names of “environmental activists who have been killed and threatened in recent years all around the world.” On the floor below the mural is a small altar that reminds us of the Native American communities ravaged along with their environment. For Caycedo, the past is not dead, even if she commemorates its memory: it is the book we read to guide us in the future. This retrospective vision also guides Justin Favela (b. 1986 Las Vegas), who reworks the art of earlier Latinx artists, the Puerto Rican Francisco Oller and the Guatemalan Carlos Mérida. What is striking about Favela’s homage to his forebearers is that he works in paper, glue, and cardboard, transmuting oil paintings into ephemera. Plátanos, al modo de Francisco Oller (2020-21) is simply beautiful, while the huge tissue paper mural combining Carlos Mérida with allusions to the Popol Vuh, the sacred Mayan creation narrative, reminds us of the fragility of art in the face of cultural depredation.
Of course, not everything in Estamos Bien is sadness and solemnity. Luis Flores (b. 1985, California) creates two life-sized humanoid figures covered in crochet, one sitting on the shoulder of the other, who reaches for a disembodied hand protruding from the wall above him. Sure, these are immigrants trying to scale the infamous wall, but there is something bizarrely comic about their bumbling attempt to secret themselves into what will likely be a hostile world. Joey Terrill (b. 1955, Los Angeles) resorts, as he says, to “the Pop-Art, still-life trope used by Tom Wesselmann” to deal with queer issues, AIDS, and consumerism. Hardly subjects for laughs, but Terrill, in Black Jack 8 (2008) creates a still life that gathers the muscular torso of a Black man, a vision of a cityscape, delectable fruit, an ice cream cone, and a can of Del Monte fruit cocktail. Terrill turns to a trick frequently used by 18th century satiric artists like Hogarth: the partial quotation. In this case, it is the blocking of the second syllable of “cocktail” by a delicate white flower. We get the point!
Vincent Valdez (b. 1977 San Antonio) takes us back to harsh reality with his hyperrealist oils of lynched men, The Strangest Fruit (2013), whose title recalls Billie Holiday’s poignant song “Strange Fruit,” also about lynching. Larger than life at 228 × 55 inches, these images echo Manet’s The Dead Toreador and Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities series (1977–83): the men are suspended in a blank space, the nowhere of memory, imagination, and nightmare. The team behind Torn Apart/Separados documents the plight of immigrants and the role of ICE anti-immigrant policy: testimonial art at its best.
But the work that best summarizes Estamos Bien is Patrick Martínez’s 84 × 192 inch mural Defeat and Victory (2020). Martínez (b. 1980, California) deploys stucco, neon, Mean Streak, ceramic, acrylic paint, spray paint, latex house paint, banner tarps, ceramic tile and practically everything else he can lay hands on to present, as he says, “the Los Angeles landscape.” Here the real and the imaginary join hands in an amalgamation where utopia (art) and reality (COVID-19) join hands in a mad panorama. Welcome to the Twilight Zone.