DENVER — Most of the time, exhibitions either provide an opportunity to enrich through juxtaposition our understanding of a selection of artworks, or they propose a set of criteria for thinking through an art historical, social, political, psychological, or aesthetic quandary. Rarely does a show achieve both. But to my mind, the current exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, Mi Tierra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place, has. It triggers reactions, thoughts, and ways of disrupting the usual questions that order and stratify the art-historical canon, memory, and social bonds. Through careful decision, Rebecca Hart, DAM Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, has arranged 13 artists’ works to provide a roadmap for addressing a broad, perhaps naïve question that has obsessed me for quite some time: What qualities describe the symbolic bonds that tether person and community to one another and to a place?
Throughout the show, animation, painting, installation, and sculpture grapple with forces of nature, biography, ideology, and narrative to tease out different strategies for the representation of individual and group relationships to the location Mi Tierra addresses: the American West. It is a place defined by centuries of layering and mixing of indigenous, Mexican, Spanish, Anglo, and African people and cultures. The exhibition offers insights with a depth usually reserved for biennials, such as the early years of Prospect, or Kochi today.
From the gallery’s entrance, Gabriel Dawe’s installation, “Plexus No. 36” (2016), occupies a perceptual foreground, despite being set far away at the back of the floor. The piece is made of thousands of threads in a spectrum of pastel colors pinned to the wall, twisted at their center to create a prismatic effect. Dawe’s choice of material is a reaction to the taboo of boys and men working with fiber: Crochet, knitting, and sewing were off-limits to him as a child. The piece, dynamically backlit by the rising and setting sun, establishes a cadence and tempo for the exhibition as a whole. Dawe amplifies the region’s particular light quality, a natural phenomenon that has lured many an adventurer and artist westward, searching for a place to establish roots and grow.
There are other moments within Mi Tierra that rely on light to raise fundamental questions about the ways in which communities order themselves and are ordered by others. As in the case of Dawe, who shines light through the barrier of a staunch delineation of gender roles, Jaime Carrejo materializes a symbolic representation that communicates the feelings of attachment to the landscape that surrounds and abuts the US-Mexico border. Carrejo’s work, “One Way Mirror” (2017), has three components: A steel-framed glass security wall is angled to control the flow of imagery that is visible within the gallery space, and there is also ambient sound and two videos projected on either side of the wall structure. The videos are comprised of footage from both sides of the border spliced with abstracted images of the national flags. This symbolic border wall is characterized by the interplay of artifice and the forces of the natural world, each butting up against the other, jockeying for influence over how we choose to conceptualize nation, territory, and the possibility of human migration across a landscape fraught by national interests.
A neighboring artwork by Justin Favela is mirrored onto a portion of “One-Way Mirror,” to visually spectacular effect. Favela’s exuberant installation made of piñata papers, “Fridalandia” (2017), is underpinned by his interpretation of canonical landscape painting by Mexican artist José María Velasco (1840–1912) and an allusion to Hollywood’s depiction of Frida Kahlo’s infamous courtyard. Notions of home, celebration, landscape, and the exotification of Mexican culture vie for primacy in this immersive installation that animates the process of identity formulation.
While a number of the works on view, particularly those by Ruben Ochoa and Daisey Quezada, approach the subject at hand through elegant abstractions with discernable connections to minimalism and politically charged conceptual work, I found myself fixated on works that unpack dominant historical narratives and push viewers to append their knowledge of the formulation of Latinx history. Since the colonization of the Americas, the region has been defined by the use of European power to structure and control disparate populations using different tactics. Reaching all the way up through California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, the Spanish Colonial Empire dominated the region until Mexico achieved its independence from Madrid in 1821, and it was not until the Mexican-American War (1846–48) that Mexico retreated to the Rio Grande.
For his installation “Songs of the Event Horizon” (2017), painter Claudio Dicochea has drawn from the DAM’s collection of casta paintings, a legacy of the Spanish Colonial period. These paintings were commissioned in an effort to communicate the constraints and taboos of racial mixing both to those in the colonies and also to those on the Iberian Peninsula. The legacy of this system is that there was a recognition of and possibility for racial mixing, so long as marriage and its resulting children fit into one of the 16 approved categories. The historical castas provide a useful counterpoint to Dicochea’s contemporary casta paintings, which derive their imagery from the news, architecture, art, and popular culture. The installation includes a dozen of Dicochea’s casta paintings augmented by four historical castas. The contemporary images that populate Dicochea’s work speak very clearly to the social and political climate of the 21st century. His couplings and their offspring annotate a social structure that is a mash-up of pop culture icons and political figures. These paintings are glossy, dripping with memories, from the X-Files to the days of Camelot to Ben Kingsley’s smiling face.
Eavesdropping on conversations in the gallery and tracking who recognizes whom in the castas reveals the symbolic logic at play in Dicochea’s work. Associative, freewheeling, and completely contingent on the viewer’s decision to either follow a thread or not, the artist brings to light the decentralization of authority in relation to the way we tell stories and write history. And, most importantly, he highlights the process of remembering and how that process of seeing, naming, and ordering images informs our sense of self in place and time, creating individual symbolic visual systems that help orient us in relation to culture and history. There is a camaraderie fostered among viewers as they share the experience of recognizing and remembering particular movie stars and political figures. The very act of looking at Dicochea’s installation forges a communal experience.
Daniela Edburg’s multifaceted work, “Uprooted” (2016), is moored by her portraits of children and elements from the Colorado landscape. Through expression and costume, she maps an attachment to place. Edburg uses wool to make representations of natural forms, like lichen, cheatgrass, river rock, alpaca, grassland, and tornadoes, and these representations of invasive and indigenous flora are then used as props in her portraits. Each portrait is in a traditional wooden frame, and then they are cast together within a massive cascade of tree roots, knitted from golden wool. An exquisitely crafted upright furniture piece with drawers that visitors can open and explore behaves as a curio cabinet containing a selection of her subjects made out of alpaca wool, invasive cheatgrass, and indigenous river rock. Edburg’s composition of furniture, felt wallpaper, portraits, and landscape photography form a universe organized according to a quantifiable emotional relationship between humans and nature that brings into focus my question about the symbolic ties that bind us to place.
Exhibition didactics in the form of edited video footage of the artists fielding questions from community members provide viewers helpful biographical information, illuminating the complexity of crafting the story of the American West through the work of Latinx artists. The artists discuss issues like their sense of obligation to represent women or artists of color and the Latinx experience, and their responses reveal the ways in which the categories of “artist,” “Latino,” and “the American West” resonate differently. Some artists see their role as one of inspirational mentor, such as Ramiro Gomez and Ana Teresa Fernández. Carmen Argote drills down on art historical classifications. When a community member asks: “Looking towards the future, where do Latinos fit into the American art world?” Argote expresses that Latino populations have always been present in America, that American art is an aspect of the art of the Americas, and that, by extension, so-called “Latino art” is inherently American.
John Jota Leaños answers Argote’s clarion call, having created an animation that reexamines many of the precepts of Manifest Destiny and the American West. In it, buffalo herds pound through the warm terrain, contrasting with the cornflower-blue skies, building a powerful image of a landscape being expanded through its place in our consciousness. This is followed by the sounds of drumming and chanting set against the star-filled night sky, captured by a panning lens skirting over an increasingly populated landscape. Leaños has built a flowing pastiche of images to reset our understanding of the region, its inhabitants, and the events that have led to our current situation. He quotes from John Gast’s canonical painting, “American Progress” (1872), to disrupt the pervasive historical narrative, as a strategy for developing a symbolic order that privileges indigenous nations through addressing the continuum of colonialism. Leaños is committed to working fast and furious in a seductive visual language to ensure that audiences of all ages come to question the narratives that have been used to structure history and its symbolism that fosters for some a sense of belonging and for others, displacement and alienation.
The American West is conceptualized throughout the exhibition according to terms rooted in the events and images of art history, but the show has its head cocked to get a better view of our current cultural climate. At the heart of this gesture is a series of disruptions that harness aspects of the dominant culture while representing and privileging erased historical and aesthetic events. Through the work of the artists in this show, the West and its many historical layers convey diverse and divergent elements comprising a symbolic order that, hopefully, re-stories the region.
Mi Tierra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place continues at the Denver Art Museum (100 W 14th Ave, Denver) through October 22.