LOS ANGELES — “In the 1990s, after NAFTA, the border, and border art specifically, was viewed as a utopian thing, a hybrid of both cultures, the best of both worlds. A lot of the emblematic border art that we know now came from this school of thought, but anyone from Tijuana would know that these ideas are outmoded,” musican and writer Reuben Torres told me at the opening of The Border Again. The group show curated by Kelman Duran features artists from Los Angeles and Tijuana whose work reflects a more complex and nuanced perspective on the border.
The roots of the exhibition lie with Otras Obras, a now-defunct gallery in Tijuana co-founded by artist Michael Ray-Von and Todd Patrick. When he moved from Tijuana to Mexico City in the fall of 2013, he asked Duran, a video artist, if he wanted to take over curating the space. Without ever having been to Tijuana, Duran agreed. He found that many other LA artists were drawn to the city for the freedom to experiment that it offered. These ex-pats and the gallery were met with a mixture of support and hostility from local artists. Furthermore, many in Tijuana beyond the art scene didn’t even know the gallery existed. In response to this, Duran started a series of unmoderated Open Forums at the space, which were focused on ideas relevant to the greater community.
“Otras Obras had a rocky beginning, work was vandalized,” Torres told me. “It spoke to this huge disconnect between LA and TJ, this sense of entitlement. Kelman mended that rift with the open forums. That marked the history of the gallery.”
Fittingly then, an Open Forum is a central part of The Border Again, and one will be held on the exhibition’s last night. In addition to the forum and the exhibition itself, the show includes a film screening and a border art primer written by Torres and Luisa Martinez that frames the work within this notion of the border as a complicated site of friction and miscommunication.
This concept is presented with a dose of dark humor in “Mexercize” (2013), a video by veteran border artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Mariah Garnett, and Roberto Sifuentes. The work’s title is inspired by a term that crooked LA cops during the Rampart Scandal would use when harassing Mexicans. Presented in the style of a traditional workout video, Gómez-Peña performs exercises like a mock-crossing of the border or Chihuahua curling. In another exercise, he dons boxing gloves — one with the Mexican flag, the other with the US — only to have them turn against him, unable to resolve his identity crisis.
Carlos Matsuo’s “Violentao” (2013) also deals with an inability to understand difference. In the video, a man stands in front of the border river, giving a monologue in a made-up language, incomprehensible to those on either side. Subtitles are taken from a song by María y José, reflecting an ironic attitude towards violence in Tijuana.
The literal border features prominently in other works, such as Ana Andrade’s photographs of people who have made their home in the Tijuana River basin.
In his “Nightscope Series” (2000–2003), Louis Hock captures nocturnal images of illegal crossings in nightvision green.
Clay Gibson’s “Likely” (2015) is a plastic water jug placed on the gallery floor, similar to those left in the Arizona desert to aid immigrants crossing from Mexico. A baseball floats in the jug, like a ship in a bottle, a formal puzzle with a very human connection.
Other artists deal with the unfulfilled promise of globalization, like Marco Ramirez (ERRE) whose work “Petrochinga” (2014) connects Mexico’s reliance on oil exports to an increasingly authoritarian government. He has fashioned riot shields out of oil barrels emblazoned with the logos of Shell and Chevron, changing their names to Hell and Cavron (presumably a play on the slang epithet “cabrón”).
In her video “Looser” (2013), Francesca Sloane references Minerva Cuevas’ “Drunker” (1995), wherein the elder artist drinks tequila to the point of unconsciousness while writing down reasons why she drinks. Instead of tequila, however, Sloane swigs from a plastic jug of rotgut mescal, a Mexican drink in name only.
Michael Ray-Von’s ceramic “Chess Exercise No. 14” (2015) provides a more symbolic commentary on the border, using chess pieces to consider how social roles are shaped and enforced by form. This points to another aspect of contemporary border art that Torres stressed to me: that it is based more in the realm of ideas than in geography.
“The idea is that border art shouldn’t be exclusive to people from TJ. It’s anything that addresses these sort of concerns,” Torres said. “It goes beyond location. It’s not a question of whether it should be done, but how it should be done so it becomes effective.”