The new exhibition at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Los de Abajo: Garbage as an Artistic Source continues the Guadalupe’s efforts to showcase cutting-edge art by lesser known and emerging artists, as the Center has done effectively over the past two years with their Artist Lab program. Organized by Andrei Renteria, an emerging artist himself and a recent recipient of the award for visual arts from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio, the exhibition features recent works by John Dalton Atkins, Jason Eric Gonzales Martinez, and Juan de Dios Mora. All emerging artists, they share an interest in making things from common everyday objects.
Organized in only a month’s time, the exhibition concept emerged after the Guadalupe’s Visual Arts Director Mark Anthony Martinez (who is also an artist) needed to fill a sudden gap in the gallery schedule. So he approached Renteria about curating an exhibition. Renteria, who just last year received his MFA from the University of Texas San Antonio, admires the work of printmaker Juan de Dios Mora, who teaches in the UTSA art department. Perceptively, Renteria noticed an affinity between Mora’s prints and the sculptural assemblages of UTSA MFA candidate Jason Eric Gonzales Martinez. Whereas Mora’s imagery includes depictions of contraptions made from commonly discarded objects, Gonzales Martinez constructs assemblages from the objects themselves.
While thinking about showing these two artists together, Renteria discovered a third artist while roaming through the student sculpture galleries. When he came across the assemblages of graduate student John Dalton Atkins, who similarly repurposes everyday detritus to make his art, he knew he had stumbled upon something worthy of investigation.
In Renteria’s thoughtful and aesthetically astute installation, the artists’ works are shown intermingled rather than segregated into separate galleries. In forgoing the common practice of isolating each artist’s works as mini-solo exhibitions, Renteria assigns greater importance to the art’s content than to who made it. This is a very healthy attitude, because it takes the focus off of celebrity, in favor of substance. As we viewers move through the installation, we have a worthwhile opportunity to test our powers of observation, as we discover the relationships that inspired the artist-turned-curator to bring the works together in the first place.
Mora, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1998, is interested in the logistics of survival, particularly as pertains to migrants who often need to be mobile on short notice and are faced with taking their limited belongings with them. Using a narrative style derived from fictional comic books and sci-fi magazines, Mora brings elements of adventure and whimsy to the very serious and reality-based subject of being on the run. In Mora’s linocuts, which are loaded with symbolic references derived from Mexican and Texas culture, a protagonist is depicted in some kind of escape vehicle made up of a variety of unusual odds and ends.
In Leading the Camino (Leading the Road), a man wearing a Mayan headdress paddles along a river using an oar to move a primitive looking boat that is also powered by objects attached to its exterior, including a gas canister, a tire, cans spewing oil, and a spinning riverboat paddle wheel.
In Tinaco Naco (Trashy Water Tank), our hero is seen commandeering a water tank turned into a flying machine that is propelled into the air by the mechanics of an umbrella, an airplane wing, a water spout, and lucha libre wrestler masks with angel wings that lift the vehicle from below.
One of the most charming examples in Mora’s repertoire is Futura Nave Espacial Maya del 2012 (Future Mayan Spaceship of the Year 2012), in which an optimistic tone emerges as a Mexican spaceman shoots for the moon, seated in an open spaceship made from a chair, an upside-down Aztec pyramid, and a lottery wheel.
Although the majority of Mora’s images appear literally to be flights of fancy, a more earthbound example is I’m Outta Here with My Chivas! (I’m Outta Here with My Belongings), which reads as a straightforward satire on the real struggles faced by migrants as they scramble to flee with their essentials, which in this offbeat example includes soda and popsicles, cacti, wrestler and devil masks, and a snake and eagle (symbols from the Mexican flag), all packed into a crate on wheels that is pulled by the hub of a truck. In this print, in particular, viewers will observe a relationship with some of Atkins’ assemblage sculptures, which take the form of oddball vehicles built from everything that you might ever have stored in your garage.
Growing up in a working class neighborhood of Louisiana, Atkins remembers that frugality was a necessity, thus it was customary to save and reuse everyday items such as plastic baggies and aluminum foil. So, working in a tradition that dates back to the innovations of Kurt Schwitters in the early 20th century and gained favor in the 1950s with assemblages by pioneers such as Robert Rauschenberg, Atkins collects and recycles disposable objects to make improbable sculptures that can tease and delight viewers through their suggestion of open-ended narratives. The deliberately clunky We Get What We Can, for example, could be the strange invention of an impoverished charwoman, a time machine from another planet, or some prehistoric vehicle from a forgotten civilization.
In his numerous wall reliefs, Atkins demonstrates a keen formal sensibility combined with a refreshingly playful temperament. It is easy to chuckle at the clever correspondence that Atkins creates between the shape of a box that houses an assortment of tools, and the tools themselves. In the wall-mounted assemblage Old Left Hook, Right Hook, there is an elegant interplay between the lines and curves of industrial objects, but this high art compositional finesse contrasts amusingly with the low art irreverence of the overall shape, which resembles an off-kilter triptych.
When assembled together and spread across an entire wall of one of the galleries, the assemblages transform into a workingman’s cabinet of curiosities with a twist.
The most sober and reflective work in the exhibition is that of Gonzales Martinez. Theoretical in his approach, Gonzales Martinez has been influenced by the writings on feminist and queer theory by the late Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldúa. In her semi-autobiographical book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Anzaldúa challenges the binary system underlying traditional divisions between male and female, latino/a and non-latino/a, and heterosexual/homosexual, and suggests that these “invisible borders” have been superseded by a new “mestiza” or higher consciousness based on acceptance of multicultural diversity, as well as hybridity in regards to gender identity and sexual orientation. In his sculptural works, Gonzales Martinez represents these ideas by combining materials that are conventionally viewed as masculine or feminine. As he is strongly interested in spirituality, he also works within the tradition of Latino/a artists who create altars and ceremonial installations, such as Amalia Mesa-Bains, a pioneer of this approach in the 1980s.
In An Altar for West y Teteoinnan, Gonzales Martinez pays tribute to Emily D. West (aka Emily Morgan), a folk heroine of mixed race who is identified with the Texas Revolution and the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and Teteoinnan (aka Coatlcue), an Aztec Earth goddess. In attaching soft “feminine” fabric to coarser and thus more “masculine” materials like wood and metal, Martinez alludes to what he considers to be “the feminine in the space of militaristic violence.” A similar relationship between materials is seen in the wall mounted assemblage Divine Hammer, where the grittiness of a hammer and sharp-edged wood and metal is balanced by the delicacy of soft lace.
While Renteria’s first major curatorial effort is commendable for spotlighting three different approaches to a particular theme, the project is also noteworthy for introducing us to a group of very talented newcomers to the ever changing and always vibrant San Antonio art scene. The exhibition continues through July 29.
Top image: Curator Andrei Renteria in the exhibition Los de Abajo: Garbage as an Artistic Source. Photo by David Rubin.