Friday, April 29, 2011

Picked RAW Peeled: Einar and Jamex de la Torre, Julio Orozco at the Athenaeum

by Kevin Freitas

Currently on view at the La Jolla Athenaeum Music & Arts library through May 7, 2011 is “hoy-yee-tah  (joyita/small jewel)” presented by the San Diego Visual Arts Network (SDVAN) in conjunction with the 2010 San Diego Art Prize and featuring works by Einar and Jamex de la Torre and emerging artist Julio Orozco.  I will be focusing primarily on the work of the de la Torre brothers in this review. 
Orozco for his part primarily suffers from a poor installation.  Many of his pieces are sandwiched in between larger works of the brothers, put in a corner or left on a window sill in an incoherent and random manner.  As a viewer, it makes you question at times whose work is whose.  I would have liked to see a more intimate and concentrated showing of his photographs and digital prints, and at least partially isolated from the rest of the exhibit. 
That being said, Orozco didn’t do himself any favors either with a selection of works that appear to be fragments of a larger idea.  Presented individually, they seem incongruent and unintelligible.  Thankfully, the series "Untitled comic pieces from the project ‘HISTORIOGRAMAS’ " save this exhibition from completely disappearing.  Their muted colors and eerie out-of-focus atmospheres are strong; they beckon the viewer like some bejeweled Siren.  A more detailed account of Orozco’s work can be found on the SDVAN website or here.

Julio Orozco - Untitled comic pieces from the project ‘HISTORIOGRAMAS'

Einar and Jamex de la Torre

Admittedly, I have limited familiarity with the work of Einar and Jamex de la Torre. Why the work of such popular and prolific artists has evaded my radar is perhaps a question to be explored.  Is it that the work does not speak to me personally, or is the work itself simply mute?  At this point, I can only draw upon the cultural references and knowledge I possess for the basis of my critique.  My apathy however in attempting this review disturbs me; I would like to know why.  Consider this essay then as a response to that ‘why’.  More chum for the literary waters if you will.  It’s a bit self-indulgent but I believe absolutely crucial (the process of discovery at least) to a better understanding of their work and its intentions.  And if through a purely quizzical approach I succeed, then that in itself has its own rewards. 

It’s an interesting dilemma to find oneself in pondering a work of art that leaves you nonplussed and therefore, makes me believe (or think) I have undoubtedly missed something.  Is it the fault of the works bicultural regionalism (both brothers spend time living and working in Ensenada and San Diego)?  Could it be a certain historicism that affects the byproduct and “look” of their sculptures?  Boiled down it seems, into reductive stereotypes, religious symbols, pop icons, and episodic and cultural influences that occur on both sides of the border.  See commonplace.  Or could it be what
Grace Duggan writing for The GLASS Quarterly Hot Sheet calls the [de la Torre brothers] “multicultural, polyglot world, creating works that serve as delightful and thought-provoking funhouse mirrors that distort reality in comical and subversive ways”?  Could this be interfering with the work’s final testimonial?    

The de la Torre brother’s works are indeed fun and delightful, subversive in a way – certainly their glass technique (such joyous insolence!), but perhaps the work is not as opinionated as it seems.  Brash and colorful yes, insightful maybe not so much.  Given the artistic freedom the brothers possess to lampoon a myriad of historical, societal and cultural issues, as they have done superficially to some degree, why continue to make work that is derivative?  I understand the desire, what I don’t understand is resisting the opportunity to broaden a viewer’s perception via an artwork’s intrinsic visual language about these issues, the fragility of our 24/7 existence in the world, and a (collective or cultural) history that impacts us and our contemporary lives in a very real and tangible almost visceral way.  And I mean producing work with a real hands-on sensibility and an activist (engaged) approach, regardless of how visually colorful or conceptually thought-provoking the work may already be.  Or to quote Ai Weiwei, To use art is not enough, to describe your view, in the old traditional forms, such as painting, sculpture… as a citizen you need to express your views.  Writing, blogging and giving interviews is a part of that, otherwise you will very easily be misunderstood by the establishment... as long as there is power and people there will be a struggle.

The degree to which an audience is affected by this type of work and its ability to truly cross cultural or party lines, I believe, can be felt and seen in the discourse of someone who experiences these things on a daily basis and someone who is just a casual observer or tourist.  This is a belief system I hold dearly I admit, but one that can also re-sensitize artists to their responsibility – as observers and cultural-political actors - of pointing out what we the people have overlooked.

It is also interesting to note after having read several reviews, press releases and artist interviews - for all the stated multiculturalism that exists in these works - there is no mention of what I believe sums up the implied content/context and importance/relevancy of the work which lies in its allegorical roots.  Or what Craig Owens describes in The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism as the following:
"Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them.  He lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter.  And in his hands the image becomes something other (allos = other + agoreuci = to speak).  He does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured; allegory is not hermeneutics.  Rather, he adds another meaning to the image.  If he adds, however, he does so only to replace: the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement."

Einar and Jamex de la Torre - Macho comprobado/
The Man Behind the Myth

I believe this goes a long way to understanding what I would call the “image recycling” the de la Torre brothers practice in constructing their polyglot world.  I also think this explains the difficulty one has talking about the work in a real concrete way as it is almost impossible (I believe the brothers make it so intentionally) to come down on or synthesize their work into a category or style since there are so many interpretations it is difficult to determine which one is the most accurate translation.  How could you possibly dispute the cultural significance - see iconoclast - status of Buddha, Christ, Catholicism, Day of the Dead, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mesoamerica and Mestizo culture, Lucha libre, and Dollar Stores displayed in such a topographical, fun, and gregarious manner?  You’d be taken for a buzz-kill if you tried.  These things don’t make the work bad or less interesting, not at all, but do they make it better or even accessible? 
Because allegory usurps its object it comports within itself a danger, the possibility of perversion: that what is ‘merely appended’ to the work of art be mistaken for its ‘essence.’

You could argue there is no need to ‘translate’ any of the de la Torre brothers works into digestible sound bites, to look for any further meaning beyond what is already there.  And you would probably be right.  I wonder though if this is enough to sustain a continued interest in the work.  This is the (dis)advantage “appropriation, site-specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, hybridization” as “diverse strategies [that] characterize much of the art of the present and distinguish it from its modernist predecessors.  The works ‘essence’ becomes then a sort of unquestionable truth by default, an appeasement, a balm for the masses, recognizable branding, perhaps even a little apologetic for its ineffectiveness as a medium of change – pointing (look at me) as opposed to acting (see what I have accomplished).
In an interview in Craft in America, the de la Torre brothers were asked to provide a little insight into their technique and working methodology. One response they gave to the question of why they used such a diversity of mixed-mediums in their work, albeit a majority is in glass, was by answering a question they routinely ask of themselves: “Am I working for the medium or is the medium working for me?” A poignant question indeed and one I believe is at the crux of any artist’s production and ultimately its success or failure as art. What this means simply, is to know whether or not you’re employing the ‘right’ tools to successfully convey your ideas. Is the medium helping or cramping your style? This could also be seen as part of that larger hybridization Owens speaks of while we witness architects becoming curators, curators becoming artists, and artists becoming relational. A larger sense of self however, doesn’t always mean community minded.

Einar and Jamex de la Torre - Mescalero

If you approach the de la Torre brothers work with this question in mind though, it’s easier to accept their mental constructs as well as their over-the-top, bombastic, colorful, and whacky imagery. The work can be challenging at times and not for the faint-of-heart, but it is able to maintain an equilibrium that appeals to a wider audience it seems, due to what Duggan calls the power of “imaginations run[ning] wild, exploring everything from the cultural significance of fusion cuisine and the deeper side of pop culture to the intersection between Mexican and American cultures and politics.” I would agree but again, this isn’t always evident when looking at the work. The Play-Doh-esque quality of the glass work and purely stylistic abstract expressionistic treatment of its surface indeed draws you in for a closer look. The bricolage of meaning from religious iconography to what a colleague of mine observed as ‘slang vernacular filled with dirty sexual humor’ is presented of course in a light-hearted way.  

In the end however, how relevant is the brothers’ work today (artistically, politically or otherwise) in comparison to what’s going on in the rest of the world, in Mexico or even San Diego? If there is an underlying message to the de la Torre brothers works, how then is the work transforming, informing or framing our understanding of our world – beyond the drug cartels, immigration debate, Juárez or any number of negative journalistic and sometimes propaganda inspired reporting we digest on a daily basis here and abroad? And seem to have a public opinion about? The works light-hearted mockery, veiled sardonicism, and colorful assemblage are rich and enticing, I rejoice in its gaudiness and the pleasure of its making. Does it make a difference to our perception of the world, art, where we live, where we grew up and what we assimilate? Does it need to? I have too many questions about work I feel is still struggling to define and not characterize itself.

There are however, two works in this exhibit I feel counter my rhetoric with elegance and conviction, and for me, the most successful.  They are Dad Wanted a Girl and Superamigos liga justiciera.  Similar in format and technique, large panoramic photos mounted on panels and encrusted with glass and cast acrylic figurines, they exquisitely blend form and content into a rich cohesive whole.

Einar and Jamex de la Torre - Dad Wanted a Girl

‘Dad Wanted a Girl’ pits glass ‘Maderistas’ and ‘Zapatistas’ dressed partially like Luchadores (little fighting G.I. Joe dolls), into a curious juxtaposition with what looks to be an image of funhouse mirrors or side mirrors on a car.  The work combines revolutionary figures in the history of Mexico’s Independence with a mash-up of contemporary culture and history’s own impermanence (see collective memory) and sometimes allegorical reinterpretation of itself as excessive, heroic, gaudy and baroque.  History is forever reinventing its personae and importance by projecting its reflection into the future.  It is often brandished by its people, carried like some oxbow (the weight of memory) on their shoulders in the form of patriotic fervor and nationalistic pride.  But history hasn’t yet realized we could have all been living in a ‘kinder, gentler nation’ perhaps, had these men amongst many other men, not been brought into this world.  Would there have been as much blood spilled if dad had gotten his wish?

Einar and Jamex de la Torre - Dad Wanted a Girl (detail)

Einar and Jamex de la Torre - Dad Wanted a Girl (detail)

‘Superamigos liga justiciera’ is a delightful yet somewhat jarring work of double-entendre in many ways including its title.  Superamigos or ‘Super Friends’ makes reference in part to the enormous popularity of professional wrestling in the US and Mexico and its infamous masked Luchadores, otherwise known  as Lucha Libre.  It also alludes to DC comic books, the televised cartoon animation Super Friends produced by Hanna-Barbara in the 1970’s, and the Justice League of America – also DC.
‘League’ or liga in Spanish can also mean garter or suspender.  Given the colorful costumes the Luchadores wear, it’s difficult not to imagine them ‘dressing up’ like little girls who wear their mother’s clothes.  Finally, justiciera or justiciero which means ‘one who rigorously upholds justice’ can be either feminine or masculine depending on the subject in question.  Again, it’s difficult not to miss the pun-manship of the brothers at work, basically if not entirely, calling the Luchadores ‘sissies’.  There does exist by the way, a branch of wrestling Luchadoras.

Einar and Jamex de la Torre - Superamigos liga justiciera

More specifically though, I believe ‘Superamigos liga justiciera’ is a clin d’oeil to a film released in 2007 entitled Super Amigos.  In which five real-life justiciero’s fight a wide range of urban ills and blight throughout Mexico City from smog to slumlords, homophobia, misery, and matadors.  Their true identities hidden behind their crime fighting names: Ecologista Universal, Super Barrio, Super Gay, Fray Tormenta, and Super Animal.  The website is replete with Batman inspired music.

However, the de la Torres brothers turn irreverence up a notch with their 'Superamigos liga justiciera'.  It’s biting commentary pegs more than just wrestling but cleverly undermines machismo, identity, gay culture, Christianity, fairies, Walt Disney and more, all within the scenic backdrop of a shimmering lake, fallen trees, and hidden coves.  Luchadores appear to be dancing together, walking on water, singing Karaoke, flexing their muscles, performing gymnastics, or being baptized.  It’s all rather cute and quaint but unsettling all the same.  To top it off, there’s a glass figurine affixed to the photo with a Luchadore body and a gigantic beastly head – with horns of course, sporting a vulva with a small plastic Snow White figurine stuck inside as a headdress.

Einar and Jamex de la Torre - Superamigos liga justiciera (detail)

Einar and Jamex de la Torre - Superamigos liga justiciera (detail)

I for one would continue to look and enjoy works like those mentioned above.  The accuracy of their commentary and the freshness of the images keep me interested and intrigued.  Are there more of them on the horizon for the de la Torre brothers, I don’t know?  I hope so for their continued success and popularity.  In the end I guess, it comes down to what a colleague of mine said recently, as artists (I would add human beings as well) “once we have a language we have an obligation to actually say something.  You are so right my friend.  And when we do say something, let’s hope it touches more than just us.

*Thank you to Lee Puffer for the additional editing

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