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MIAMI — William Cordova’s exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum Miami is entitled william cordova now’s the time: narratives of southern alchemy, and you’re meant to traverse the gallery in a circle and, also, to never capitalize his name. I do here only because of the stipulations of this medium. But that title: “alchemy”, like chemical transformation. Like Raymond Carver’s poem “where water comes together with other water.” Like your lover’s name reified into a wearable nameplate; then, later, melted into gold, when your love gets sullied — a habit of Cordova’s friends in their adolescence, the artist tells me at the exhibition. It is his first museum survey, containing drawings, sculptures, installations, and collaborative projects from over ten years of artist residencies. In this sense, the show itself is a kind of alchemical transformation: it features work that Cordova made in Greensboro, Harlem, Skowhegan, Houston, and elsewhere, all rendered into a mystical south. South, like the Global South, or like Miami, Florida, or Lima, Peru, South America, Cordova’s place of birth.
I met Cordova at the exhibition to walk in a quiet orbit around the space; I’d missed the opening, when he sent smoke signals from the museum’s rooftop to the heavens. Inside, the work looks as tenuous as wafting vapor, like it would collapse if grazed: there’s a maze of standing vinyl record covers supported only by each other; a wreath of tinted sunglass lenses; two feathers bound by coin wrappers and set, like a teacup, atop a paper bag. That maze, called “Laberintos (after Octavio Paz y Gaspar Yanga)” (2003–2009), came from a box “appropriated from an institution,” Cordova explains, in response to that institution’s refusal to return stolen — “appropriated” — cultural artifacts to the Peruvian government. It is unclear to which institution Cordova refers, and what exactly he means by “appropriated.” The implication, I sense, is that if the former chose to engage in the latter, his own obtainment of these records — a vast collection, a crate-digger’s dream — is justified. (“There is nothing worse than a labyrinth without a center,” Paz once wrote.)
The sunglasses, “untitled (crown)” (2012/2018), Cordova tells me, are a headdress, and “they propose a prism — different perspectives, different stories. Their color reflects skin tone — brown skins, dark skins. Most of the materials I use are brown, to reflect the origin of the person making this.” “The person” is naturally pluralized: Cordova and the bodies that rarely make direct appearances in his exhibit but are implied, everywhere. That paper bag, underneath the feathers, is one instance, given its brown color, like poreless skin; the piece’s title, “untitled (geronimo)” (2009) is another — it references Geronimo, medicine man of the Apache tribe who later became a World’s Fair attraction, unable to return to the land of his birth, and also Geronimo Pratt, born Elmer, a Black Panther dubiously accused of murder by FBI informants.
Titles tell stories: a friable-looking maquette of a balsa-wood house, 13” tall and emblazoned with 10” graffiti, is deemed “the house that frank Lloyd wright built 4 atahualpa y lee” (2008). It references three people: Atahualpa, known as the last Incan emperor; Lee Quinones, a graffiti artist of the mid-1970s; and Wright, the architect. The sculpture is “a monument,” Cordova says, “to the pioneers of aerosol art. Most of them were artists of color, working in the early 1980s, and their work is not part of academic research … Even early 1970s throw-ups were often political and social statements.”
A series of polaroid prints, “crónicas marcianas (greensboro, marfa)” (2017), documents tiny objects, like a button and a small figure of a Native American woman with a bow and arrow, which Cordova obtained during his residency at Elsewhere Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. The prints, he says, are his way of “making the invisible visible.” What else was invisible during his time in Greensboro? “The black presence of the city,” he explains, “and the Native American presence.” “Crónicas marcianas” is Spanish for The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury’s tale of the conflict between aboriginal Martians and a group of human colonists.
Here on our tour, I thought of novelist Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, which tells a story similar to Bradbury’s, hypermasculine and painful; that prompted my memory of Le Guin’s short work, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, a story of utopian prosperity and festivity utterly dependent on the despair of one suffering child. I don’t know if the latter story is necessarily a cautionary tale, since cautioning requires warning against that which has not yet occurred; suffering has always happened at the bedside of perennial privilege, and the recipients of such privilege have always been very good at writing their own stories — indeed, they’ve had the platform for it.
Cordova doesn’t fancy himself an ethnographer, but “making the invisible visible” is something he is very good at — especially when it comes to telling stories that decentralize whiteness. In 2014, Cordova directed Silent Parade… or The Soul Rebels Band Vs. Robert E. Lee, in which the Soul Rebels Band — a brass band from New Orleans — played, in freeform improvisation, to a statue of the Confederate soldier, in a discordant melody of frustration, despair, and real joy, too. That Lee’s likeness was a source of pain was suddenly cathartically palpable, if it hadn’t been before. That statue was removed from Lee Circle on May 19, 2017.
A press release for the show at the Pérez Museum referred to Cordova as a “cultural practitioner,” a phrase I impulsively dismissed for its steganographic pretension. But narratives of southern alchemy proves it’s true: Cordova has created a mostly-wordless history book, an inviolable map. Nothing here, after all, is so breakable. I learned that the brown paper bag of “untitled (geronimo)” contains a brick. The feathers transmit the message, like antennae.
william cordova now’s the time: narratives of southern alchemy is on view at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (1103 Biscayne Blvd, Miami) through October 7.