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Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement

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LACMA billboard of <I>The Breaks by Juan       Capistran

The Breaks by Juan       Capistran

Phantom Sightings Installation by        Phantom Sightings

Phantom Sightings Installation by        Phantom Sightings

Phantom Sightings Installation by        Phantom Sightings
Los Angeles County Museum of Art ,
Apr 06, 2008 - Sep 01, 2008
Los Angeles, CA, USA

Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement
by Ruben R. Mendoza

Similarly, Arturo Ernesto Romo’s Rended Façade employs a subversive disidentification toward the institution with another immersive structure that invites interaction. Here, the nested meta-structure, a hybrid mural/installation, is a tightly compacted mash-up of work studio, curandero headquarters, makeshift stage, and unfinished (unpermitted?) garage add-on. But where de la Loza’s piece insinuates itself into the museum space with a mock façade of institutional permanence (complete with darkened interior, soft lighting, and viewing bench), Romo’s installation pokes fun at LACMA from a permanent verge of both completion and collapse. Here, the "structure" is three walls of exposed beam, layered, unfinished mural(s), and about half a roof of slanted, corrugated transparent plastic. In Los Angeles, the reference to missing fourth walls and tear-down TV studio sets is unmistakable. But despite Rended Façade’s delicate, teetering balance, when one "enters" the space and walks on the throw rugs, there is an oddly reassuring sense of safety and sanctuary. Paradoxically, the open, vulnerable space creates a buffering from the museum’s normally constricting atmosphereça result not only of its intimate environment, but more importantly, of the encouragement to interact with it. While a video of Romo’s alter-ego, the mystic curandero/philosopher, Dr. Eufencio J. Rojas, plays on a small television, one can look over flyers for Rojas’s "Narcoquest" tourçpromising enlightenment (and originally distributed on car hoods and other outlets)çand pick up and read books and papers on the desk (including transcribed "works" of the illiterate Rojas). Other accessible objects include a broken mirror, hanging (fake) plants, a baggie of "medicina antigua," folded blankets under the desk, and posters. Perhaps most significant, however, are the mock museum title/label cards casually placed within the piece. Using Helvetica font on a white background, the title cards mimic museum and gallery placards with faux artist names like Antonio "Tiny Montgomery" Luz, year of birth, a title, and media descriptions like, "Chalk and saliva." What is most remarkable about these labels, though, is that they are printed on a thick, inviting stack of tear-away notes. Like other everyday, accessible objects here, these tear-away labels undermine the fetishization of object that is the hallmark of commodified art through a constant transformation that exemplifies the processual functioning of a decolonial imaginary: Each time we tear away a label the piece transforms on multiple levels, and the process of transformation then multiplies, rhizomatically, as these bits of institutional "authenticity" are taken away.

While not as immersive, some other artists who operate in a similar modality of transformation here include Eduardo Sarabia, Alejandro Diaz, and Carolyn Castaço. In Treasure Room (2007ç8) Sarabia’s "vault" of conflated family and narcotraficante legends, he documents the transformative process of tracing his own identity through his family’s geohistory of fact and fiction as he unraveled a narrative of self and geography across the U.S. Southwest and parts of Mexico. Diaz’s Dichos (Sayings) (2004), a wall of cardboard signs with sardonic messages like, "Wetback by popular demand," inserts into the museum space a multi-layered phantom presence of Latinas/os, immigrants, and the homeless, while echoing Diaz’s New York sidewalk intervention, Breakfast Tacos at Tiffany’s (2003), in which he stood in suit and tie with these "homeless"-style signs in front of Tiffany’s. Finally, Castaço’s mixed-media paintings stand out in this context not only for their invocation of that quintessentially transformative space of communal interaction, the beauty salon (from whose glam-poster aesthetic they borrow), but also because the "make-over" models they depict are actually her friends. It’s unclear whether they were "made-over" prior to modeling, or if Castaço glamorized them later. In any case, the connection of transformation to personal life through a community of friends here makes an important point about this discussion of transformation and the decolonial: Namely, that the process occurs in community.

The Decoy and the Decolonial: Communities in Transformation in Communities

This last point about process and transformation in community is an important note on which to conclude.

Returning to the curatorial framework, one last issue involves the inclusion of the 1970s/80s work of avant-garde Chicano conceptual/performance group, Asco. The point of including Asco çwho notoriously pioneered a complex, internally directed critique of simplistic representation at the height of the overwhelmingly nationalist, essentialist, and representational 1960s/70s wave of Chicano Movement(s) çis to align the younger artists in Phantom Sightings with Asco’s internally subversive tradition. (Most of these artists were born from about the mid-1960s to the 1970s.)

But in addition to inadvertently relegating the work of Asco artists to the Ghost of Avant-garde Pastças if Harry Gamboa, Jr., Patssi Valdez, Gronk, and Willie Herrçn III, stopped creating in 1987 and have not continued making cutting-edge work into the present that could have been included hereçthe inclusion of Asco highlights a fundamental shift to a focus on work that represents transformation, rather than embodying it.

Because Asco’s work was not just about transformation. Nor was it merely "transformative." The reason Asco’s work has endured is because it was transformation. Transformation of urban space; transformation of the individual; and, perhaps most importantly, transformation of community çin community. These artists were not just "preoccupied" with transformation; they did not merely "speak to," or "invoke," or "problematize." Asco enacted a radical, ritualistic transformation that functioned on intertwined physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual registers.

Afterward, we’re left with an archive of "decoy" documents that point to (and away from) this ephemeral transformation. As Chon A. Noriega, art historian C. Ondine Chavoya, and others, have eloquently theorized, the resulting interplay of archive and ephemeral serves Asco’s myth- and meaning-making/unmaking. However, along with this academic analysis, these documents have also been subjected to a process of commodification, fetishization, and curatorship. And as some of the failures of Phantom Sightings demonstrate, the result is that for many younger, formally trained artists and academics, these archive "decoys" are often stripped of their decolonial context. Works like the Erased Lynching series and other highly theorized, formally clever Phantom Sightings representations of transformation demonstrate how this decontextualization replicates the post-Conquest, colonial practice of privileging archive over ephemeral. As performance theorist Diana Taylor notes, the colonial attack on indigenous art practices as inferior specifically because of their inclusion of the non-archivable was designed to obscure and erase their sophisticated, dialogical meaning-making relationship between archive and ephemeral. In the current context of a complex, new form of internal colonization, the decontextualizing erasure that substitutes for transformation with a representation of transformation, often renders not only the work, but the artist as well, a kind of decoy disconnected from the paradigm-shifting power of the transformational. The irony is that for many contemporary Chicana/o (and "post-" Chicana/o) artists,

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