Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement, which just opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is not an easy show to write about, and even the nature of the show itself is elusive--not a straightforward curated historical exhibition, but rather a conceptual one that follows an idea that is about absence rather than essence. Not surprisingly, the show is at once dark and glittery, overwhelming and ghost-like.
The lack of a presence in both society and art, the gray area between inclusion and exclusion, and resulting uncertainty and confusion about identity are at the heart of the show, creating a language that addresses the paradox of "Chicano art"--a term not always embraced by self-identified Chicano artists.
Many of the pieces utilize personal relics, false objects, or are fantastical creations constructed with the skills and materials of silent sweatshops. Truth, stories, and rumors overlap--metaphors for an ethnic, social, and culture identity. I deeply appreciate the fact that the show doesn't force a certain understanding, but gives the audience credit for grasping the free-form nature of the idea itself.
Erased Lynching 1884, by Ken Gonzales-Day from the series Erased Lynchings, 2004; Chromogenic print mounted on card stock 3 3/4 x 6 in. Courtesy of the artist and Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles
Having an uncle who was beaten until he was brain-damaged in a pre-WWII racial attack, I understand the concept of the unspoken, unwritten, and omitted history of the shameful aspects of California history. This personal perspective only deepened the impact of the show--which to me, was not just for those of Mexican descent, but a powerful mirror for everyone, especially those who live in California. The silent pain voiced in the work and the complicated feelings of guilt in the complicity of this daily experience affected me in a way I had not expected.
From a pure painterly perspective, I loved Eduardo Sarabia's gorgeous and bright Tetris King and Queen of the Monarch Butterflies. As a boy, Sarabia heard old family legends about his grandfather and a rumored buried treasure. His quest to learn more about this story took him to narcotrafficking centers rich in their own word-of-mouth lore of Jesus Malverde, the so-called patron saint of drug dealers. Inspired by these stories, Sarabia's work has a fable-like quality, subversive in it's questionable truths.
As I walked through the show, the work that I found most moving was There's No Place like Home by Mario Ybarra Jr. The piece is composed of four LightJet prints of small California homes set against perfect sunny skies, prison-issue shoes, and an electric motor. Somehow in that small room I was transported to a place where I could image the way many Mexicans who moved to California in search of a better life ended up getting into trouble and spending endless days making shoes in prison.
Before I sign off, I'll share with you a surreal moment I experienced leaving the show that could only happen in Los Angeles. As I pulled out of the underground parking lot at LACMA and waited for the light to turn, a nanny of Mexican descent walked in front of my car, pushing a stroller with two blond children. The final irony being that my radio, tuned to some random station, was crooning a syrupy old Spandau Ballet song..."I know this much is true. This much is true I know, I know, I know this much is true..."
Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement features 31 artists and 120 works, including paintings, sculpture, installation, video, performance, photo-based art, and intermedia works incorporating film, digital imagery, and sound. The show opened on April 6 and will run through September 1, 2008 at LACMA.