Exceptional multidimensional perspectives at Vida, muerte, justicia exhibition at Ogden Contemporary Arts

In the mixed media painting Consuela – dee Flying Yoke, Mexican-born artist Amelec Diaz offers a brilliant statement on the stubbornness of efforts to prevent any attempts to introduce, enrich and expand different cultural heritages in education and in the community.

In the background of the painting, Diaz, who recently completed an artist residency at Modern West Gallery in Salt Lake City, includes Consuela, the Spanish-speaking housekeeper from the Family Guy animated series. Immediately visible are numerous archetypes and stereotypes that also have been perpetuated by cartoons but then are juxtaposed against ancient fragments and artifacts that represent the geographic areas from where these cartoons were created.

It is an impressive synthesis of the diaspora of Latin American, Indigenous and Hispanic cultural legacies in a counterpoint against pop culture that perpetuates stereotypes. These authentic cultural legacies have become the targets of efforts such as Arizona’s HB2281, which sought to ban ethnic studies in Tucson schools but was later found unconstitutional. Only a decade later did groups once again try to ban access to such programs, which was reversed by an executive order advocating for equity and program support for underserved communities.

Amelec Diaz, Consuela – dee Flying Yoke, 2021. Oil, spray-paint, acrylic on wood, 108 x 36 x 3 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

The Diaz painting is part of a collection of exceptional multidimensional perspectives in the exhibition Vida, muerte, justicia: Life, Death, Justice: Latin American and Latinx Art for the 21st Century, which will soon conclude at Ogden Contemporary Arts. The exhibition, which masterfully integrates works of rising and established artists from local as well as national and international locations, motivates the viewer to contemplate the enlightened potential and themes of artists of Latin American, Latino and Latinx descent as supplementing the history of the American art experience with significant impact.

The scope is breath-taking. There are works that challenge and reframe stereotypes with expressions that elicit fresh perspectives on gender identity within the intersecting contexts with class, history and sexuality. There are works about social protest and their ubiquitous presence in the present as well as the past — expanding to criminal justice reform, the Black Lives Matter movement, climate change, environmental activism, economic discrimination against women, the preservation of cultural legacies and immigration. Numerous artists appropriate classic artistic styles and components — memento mori, still-life composition, collage, portraiture and classic works of western art history — and transform them into extraordinarily detailed contemporary expressions emphasizing that historical styles should not be protected under glass. They can be rejuvenated as a means of demonstrating an artistic legacy that actually has always been present but also had been deliberately suppressed, devalued and misappropriated from its proper position of visibility and prominence in the world of visual arts culture. 

In sum, the Ogden Contemporary Arts (OCA) show amplifies a major takeaway from the traveling exhibition Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem which came to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts earlier this year. Forms, media and materials are not always being explored solely for the purposes of skill and technique. In fact, the abstract works also address the same social, political and cultural criticisms, insights and concerns that animate the inspirations behind some of the exhibition’s representational works.

Andrew Alba, Granary Storage and Ariana, 2020. Oil on canvas, 58 x 58 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

The show was curated by multidisciplinary artist Jorge Rojas and María del Mar González-González, assistant professor of global modern and contemporary art history at Weber State University. There are 24 artists represented in the show, an expansive display that encompasses gallery space not only at the OCA site but also at the Mary Elizabeth Dee Shaw Gallery on the Weber State campus.

The breadth and depth of thematic attention are commendable. For example, an excellent complement to Diaz’s painting is found in the Bad Hombre art objects by Horacio Rodriguez. Some Utah visitors might recognize the artist from the Radicalized Relics exhibition presented earlier this year at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. Rodriguez works with themes arising from the the simultaneous commodification, marginalization and exploitation of the people and culture along the southern borders. As noted previously at The Utah Review, he adds bits of contemporary references that literally stun the viewer into fresh consideration of the sociopolitical, commercial marketing and cultural media dynamics in play. Soda pop bottles and Lady Guadalupe candles, for example, become Molotov cocktails and guns as artifacts of resistance. Rodriguez creates a clarifying hybrid of contemporary cultural impulses and archaeological memories in his work.

Local connections are apparent. Andrew Alba’s oil canvas painting Granary Storage and Ariana is a moving reminder of the summer of 2020 protests organized in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked not only by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis but also by the killing of Bernardo Palacios-Cabrajal by Salt Lake City police. The young man was killed in the Granary Storage area in the city, just two days before the Floyd murder, and protests continued even after local prosecutors concluded the killing was justified. Alba, a self-taught artist who also is a descendant of Mexican migrant workers, effectively captures the setting and mood of the shrine at Granary Storage which became a gathering spot for activists. But, the most prominent element is the depiction of the artist’s three-year-old daughter, Ariana, an expression of optimism that the protests and activism are not in vain. Likewise, Ruby Chacón’s All Mothers underscores the movement’s coalescing forces for unity in activism through its classic form of a superbly detailed quadriptych.

Tania Candiani, El tiempo es otro río, 2020. Video still. Image courtesy of the artist.

The indiscriminate impacts of violence are captured in several works. Among them are Patricia Espinosa’s America’s Teddy Bear, with colored pegs documenting the victims of school shootings dating to the Sandy Hook elementary incident in 2012. Blanka Amezkua’s 43 for Them reminds viewers of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College who went missing in Mexico on September 26, 2014 and their disappearance has never been investigated or accounted for by the Mexican government.

The forms taken up by artists are incredibly resourceful and instructive, especially when they take up the thin veil between life and death. A modern-day expression of memento mori, Alexis Duque’s Mundo Cranium, an acrylic canvas painting, builds phenomenal depth of detail into a human skull with signs and symbols of unsparing commercialism and materialism. These symbols include the familiar eye of providence from the back of U.S. dollar bills along with logos of all sorts of popular brands and trademarks. The composition of so many elements does not give the feeling of clutter but rather a finely structured layout that clarifies the artist’s thematic intentions viewed both from a distance and then close up to discern the numerous elements contained within the skull. 

Composer as well as artist, Guillermo Galindo, who counts among his creative sources of inspirations figures such as Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Tarsila do Amaral and Enrique Chagoya, produced Cyber-totemic Objects and Sonic Mediators. With these sources, he has created sound-making instruments out of found objects that also connect to Pre-Colombian sound healing practices. He would incorporate personal objects left behind by migrants not just at the American borders but also in Europe as well. These include a Claviolín, fashioned from a violin case, cow bone, large rail nail, Bible pages, and hair bands. The handmade instruments are playable.

Scherezade Garcia, The Corona Altar, 2020. Paint/installation, dimensions variable. Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk. Image courtesy of the artist.

The impact of the pandemic arises in several works. Scherezade Garcia’s The Corona Altar serves as the impressive introduction to the exhibition, a beautifully composed collage in honor of the Mexican papel picado tradition with the weeping Statue of Liberty presented in cinnamon hues, the historical icon of immigrants who have come to American shores. While the work was originally dedicated to New York residents who died of COVID-19, local visitors to the exhibition have brought objects, candles and other memorabilia in honor of loved ones who have died during the pandemic. Lisa and Janelle Iglesias, who collectively are known as Las Hermanas Iglesias, have produced a series of photographs chronicling their respective pregnancies over the last nine years, as they posed together in staged shots and were clad in underwear. The daughters of Norwegian and Dominican immigrants, they now live on opposite coasts of the country and for the latest in the Commiserates series, the two pregnant mothers posed separately in their houses, due to the pandemic. They pose while sitting on their respective living room sofas as they did in the first photo of the series taken nearly a decade before. The purpose of Commiserates, to quote from their joint artistic statement, is “bearing witness to each other’s transformation, joy, struggles and grief around motherhood. Our lived experiences with pregnancy, abortion, possible infertility, birth and loss have led us to think critically about reproductive rights and justice issues. In association with this project is an open-source resource around grief and infant loss.”

Argentinian artist Tamara Kostianovsky’s Roadkill is an extraordinary soft sculpture, comprising meat hooks and textiles taken from the artist’s clothes which are then fashioned to resemble a bloodied leg of a freshly slaughtered cow. It is a convincing description about the callous objectification of the body as a slab or piece of meat but also the artist notes that the symbolism has multiple meanings that will converge at some point: crude consumerism, political violence where maiming and body desecration occur, and disregard for one’s rights to control their body. Kostianovsky, a Brooklyn resident, has gained an international reputation for her sculptures, which have an unmistakably natural quality of effect and appearance.

Tamara Kostianovsky, Roadkill, 2011. Mixed media: clothing belonging to the artist, meat hooks, 62 x 17 x 19 in. Photo by David Ellison. Image courtesy of the artist.

Other notable installations include a new mural by Roots Art Kollective, the trio of artists who have an exceptional year producing large-scale works in numerous locations, including the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. For OCA, they produced Amor Eterno, resplendent in the incorporated symbols of the Day of the Dead in Aztec mysticism and Monarch butterflies, the definitive representation of transformation in life. Following a signature trademark in their other murals, RAK turns to musical lyricism in Spanish with calligraphy inspired by songs such as Facundo Cabral’s No soy de aquí ni soy de allá, Chavela Vargas’ Las simples cosas and Juan Gabriel’s Amor eterno.

Tania Candiani, a Mexico City native who represented Mexico at the 56th Venice Biennale and whose work has been exhibited widely around the globe, presents an unforgettable 11-minute video installation that presents a history of social protests by reimagining them within the context of virtual games, including Second Life, Minecraft, Animal Crossing, and the Sims. El tiempo es otro río is an engrossing tour of international protests, covering a span of more than 50 years, not only in Mexico but also in Hong Kong and New York City. This would be a remarkable component in media studies as well as social studies courses for students in high school or college. The inventive resourcefulness in this work is outstanding. It is worth quoting from the artist’s statement: “Although the protests and actions here are reincarnated reflections of various earlier real-life events, this work is also a space for exchanges where various agents can add their own bodies— or digital extensions of them—in place of others. This gives a second life to the act of protest, extending it into the alleys and hyperlinks of the internet—where these political bodies populate a new metaverse.”

The exhibition continues through Nov. 27. For more information, see the Ogden Contemporary Arts website 

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