The Fine Line Between Praising and Exploiting the Creative Resourcefulness of the Needy

Andrew Birk, ‘Callejero’ (2015) (all photos courtesy Anonymous Gallery and the artist)

MEXICO CITY — Shards of glass protrude from the walls and the smell of cigarettes fill Anonymous Gallery for a solo show by Mexico City-based American artist Andrew Birk, who attempts to interpret the vibrancy and chaos of Mexico City’s streets through the lens of art history. A strange combination of Mark Rothko compositions with the spirit of an anarchist teenager, Birk’s work hinges on innocent and even naïve cultural appropriation, but also directly engages with the city as a physical location. Callejero epitomizes artists’ tendencies to seek inspiration in the underbelly of society and also the hypocrisy of an art market that romanticizes poverty while actively participating in elitism.

Birk is particularly interested in the way marginalized communities are forced to be inventive, creating solutions to immediate problems: insecurity (shards of glass serve as barbed wire); work (posters for day laborers and loose cigarettes sold individually); and lack of resources (resourcefulness, like housing a single fluorescent light bulb in a Gatorade bottle). There is an interesting connection between the DYI aesthetics of poor communities and city streets and natural evolution. After all, evolution is shaped by survival. Just like genetic traits in natural evolution, creative solutions to marginalization become widespread. Throughout Mexico City, you can see the same Gatorade bottle lamp, loose cigarette display, security chains, posters, and trashed cars that the artist brought into the gallery.

Installation view, ‘Andrew Birk: Callejero’ at Anonymous Gallery

Birk’s paintings and sculptures in Anonymous have something in common with Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas, who continues to investigate “autoconstrucción” (self-construction), unpacking the forms and aesthetics of the slums and microeconomics in his hometown, Mexico City — home to Neza-Chalco-Itza, the world’s largest slum with an estimated 4 million inhabitants. Birk is Cruzvillegas’s equal and opposite. As opposed to the Mexican artist’s museum formality and academic posturing, Birk approaches the same issues through anti-academic and punk aesthetics.

Andrew Birk, ‘Callejero’ (2015)

Birk is an obsessive observer of details that go unnoticed by locals and outsiders alike, until said objects are put on a pedestal. So, the show also sets the stage for a conversation about perspective, illuminating the ways in which contemporary art romanticizes, exoticizes, and monetizes objects with no practical value. Cultural appropriation, especially by white males like Birk, can easily turn into an extension of colonialism, but Birk’s work is too affectionate to be dangerous. His laborious process reflects a deep appreciation for ingenuity. He’s not claiming Mexican street culture as his own, but seems desperate to participate in it, something he can never fully achieve as an outsider.

It’s a privilege to be able to admire the aesthetics of the needy, to recognize the poetry in the cracks of the city through iPhone cameras and to witness the loop created when high culture fixes its gaze on the margins of society — the tianguis and the precarious informal housing on the outskirts of the city — as inspiration for objects that fill galleries and museums.

Andrew Birk, ‘Callejero’ (2015) (click to enlarge)

As an artist, Birk is more focused on the resourcefulness found in the streets of Mexico City than he is on analyzing the layers of formalism or craft. There is an acknowledgment and even an appreciation for labor in Callejero. One of the best examples is a bare car frame, with no wheels, doors or engine, displayed casually on the gallery floor. The artist purchased the vehicle whole and manually deconstructed it, even sanding off the paint in order to mimic the chassis he sees occupying the streets of Tlalpan, where he has his studio. He also took Bondo putty to his canvases, sanding the surface down and echoing the labor of the car.

The paintings, according to the artist, bridge the gap between the canon of art history and the developing world through a loose and vague formal obsession with Rothko. Birk used graffiti and found posters to recreate the modernist’s rectangular compositions, although the similarities mostly end there. Primary colors, collage, and spray paint make Birk’s paintings overwhelming, demanding, and, when at their best, ambiguous. One particular painting, “Baby K,” stands out for the narrative it creates through layered imagery: What appears to be an anal sex scene is overset with a rectangular bar of graffiti and a gestural painting of a rose. Another canvas, “Viaducto Tlalpan,” also seems to create a short story through a more complex, notably non-Rothko, composition which includes lost dog posters and an abstract portrait of a clown that’s creepily reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

It’s amusing to imagine one of Birk’s paintings hanging in a swanky Brooklyn loft, on a concrete wall surrounded by stacks of never-opened art books. The six degrees of separation between high culture (the gallery) and the city streets are almost laughable. Callejero demonstrates dissidence between two cultures, but without intending to. The installation would have been more nuanced if the work — rather than being situated within a masked art historical framework — owned its alien status within the gallery and the artist his alien perspective in Mexico City.

Andrew Birk, 'Callejero' (detail) (2015)
Andrew Birk, ‘Callejero’ (2015)

Andrew Birk: Callejero continues at Anonymous Gallery (Lago Erne 254, Cuauhtémoc Pensil, Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico City) through March 26. 

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