L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
Most good artists moonlight as social historians at least some of the time. Often, they’re as bad at it as real-deal historians are (just think what sort of voluptuously erroneous textbook Gauguin would’ve written on the Polynesians, or what might have happened if Damien Hirst gem-encrusted skull had launched a scholarly inquest into diamonds in the Congo). Bad history doesn’t preclude good art, of course; sometimes it even propels it (depending on who you ask, Guaguin and Hirst are cases in point).
Being a both good historian and a good artist only seems to work for rare individuals like Jeffrey Vallance—his faux Nixon Museum and serious study of “Painter of Light” Thomas Kinkade wreaked of well-researched sincerity—whose sense of what matters happens to be soaked in idiosyncrasy to begin with. But, of late, some more doctrinaire, less idiosyncratic artmakers have adopted a connect-the-dots approach to history and cultural commentary that seems to work quite nicely: pull together a careful collection of socially charged moments, set them out in the world, and let them do their work.
Camilo Ontiveros connects dots in his current exhibition, Some Boxes and Two Photographs About America, on view at Steve Turner Contemporary. Even his title evokes the un-boundedness of his narrative slant. From the street (this gallery often hangs work in its front window, a shtick that, on occasion, makes serious ideas feel like teasers), you can see a poster-sized photograph of a Navy billboard targeted at Latino youth. The young soldier it features squints in the sun, which casts a dramatic, flattering shadow down the middle of his face. He looks a little too small and awkward in his white uniform, however, and it’s hard to imagine him uttering the words “Este Es Mu Pais” (or “This is my Country”), spelled out beside him, with much gusto.
Inside, Ontiveros has installed an extensive collection of motley security system boxes, all variations on red, white and blue—granted, some “white” boxes are practically brown and some “blues” are closer to gray; still it’s got a patriotism to it that’s quaintness like a faded Norman Rockwell. In fact, the installation, called It’s Not Just Security, It’s Peace of Mind, feels like a museum collection of nostalgic relics from the 50s or 60s, just after our wartime prime. The boxes are neither obsolete nor expressly old, however. Ontiveros assembled them recently, while working as an alarm system installer here in SoCal.
Invasion is a repeat theme in Ontiveros’ work. Security boxes exist to keep invaders out and the Navy has served that exact same purpose from time to time. Step into the back gallery at Steve Turner, and you’ll find a shrine to one particular invader stopped at the San Ysidro border a year ago. Called The Burial of Anastacio Hernandez, the shrine consists of a photograph of a funeral and two candles on a pedestal. The Anastacio in question had been deported after living in San Diego for 18 years and died in May 2010, beaten by police and shot with a stun gun as he tried to cross into the U.S. The case was publicized but never quite notorious, and Ontiveros’ installation won’t add any notoriety. It’s familiar enough to seem like any other present-day shrine, but minimal enough to avoid triteness.
The Burial is the only piece in the show not for sale. This feels indicative of the kind of artist Ontiveros is—not unreasonable (the boxes can all be bought), but tactful and concerned. Mexico-born,California-based, he’s regional first and foremost, a designation far more muscular than derogatory in this globally-obsessed world. He cares about what goes down in the swath of land between where he comes from and where he lives now in a possessive, sometimes indignant way. In Some Boxes and Two Photographs About America, he’s tying together moments with a quiet intensity, asking us to follow the thread and piece together a story–this time, about how invasion and our obsession with it has gone too far.