We're likely to be awfully tired of hearing about 1492 in this quincentennial year of argumentative exhibits and performances that do everything but toss Christopher Columbus off the Santa Maria and force him to swim back to Spain.
But one year of highly publicized dissension is only a drop in the ocean when you consider the generations of schoolchildren who never heard the bad news about Columbus' voyage to the New World. Downbeat interpretations are concerned with the morality--and political and economic profit--involved in turning American Indians into slave labor, and imposing alien values, religions and languages on cultures automatically viewed as inferior.
However, it takes more than deep personal conviction to produce a meaningful work of art. The installations by five artists in "After 1492: Another View," at Rancho Santiago College (through Oct. 8) all have emphatic agendas but some remain unconvincing. The best pieces, by Dorothy Imagire and Deborah Small, combine conceptual art tactics with a closely reasoned view of history. The other works tend to be overly simplistic, or bewilderingly private.
Small's complex installation, "Empire/Elan/Ecstasy," consists of a wall-filling checkerboard of texts and images that deftly deconstruct received notions of the discovery of America.
Color reproductions of elaborate old illustrations show Columbus as conqueror, while a set of uniformly green-and-black images group together native American flora, fauna and silhouetted human beings. Groupings of words conflate historical confusion (Columbus thought he had landed in Asia) with historical rapacity ("China? Gold? Japan?" "Kingdom! Power! Glory!"). A book index entry ("native women----their attractiveness, as concubines, fair-skinned, lascivious; see also Amazons") and a film advertisement (a shapely female rear, smiling faces of dark-skinned women) call attention to the history of the nonwhite woman as white male sex object.
The text in an accompanying book, "1492: What it is Like to be Discovered," by Small and Maggie Jaffee, slices through history with a sharp knife. For example: "I wear a white hat, tight boots, a Teflon shirt. All conquistadors do."
Imagire's two pieces were reviewed on these pages last summer when they were included in "Relocations and Revisions: The Japanese-American Internment Reconsidered" at the Long Beach Museum of Art. These modest-looking installations, which are meant to be handled by viewers, involve telling analogies between tangible and intangible things.
"Alien Nation" is a group of small boxes holding black-and-white photographs of "alien" species--fruits, flowers and vegetables that were once botanical "immigrants" but have long since been integrated into the fabric of life in the United States, unlike their human counterparts.
"Memory Text" consists of old family photographs and texts relating to their wartime experience, each sandwiched between pieces of wax-coated glass. These bundles need to be held up to lights to be seen clearly, an action analogous to the recent airing of long-suppressed memories by Japanese-Americans incarcerated in internment camps as enemy aliens during World War II.
"Movable Consciousness," by Richard A. Lou, with Deborah Lou (his niece), is a heartfelt but ragged piece that seems more like a first draft than a finished conception. Viewers enter the piece, which looks like a little wooden clubhouse, through a door that springs shut. This is the "small room" where "we keep our secrets," the artists write in an accompanying statement.
The "secrets"--casually scribbled in different handwriting around the bright yellow walls of the room--are stories drawn from the experience of growing up in Tijuana with Mexican-Chinese parentage. Mrs. Lou was a pelionera, a fighter, who stood up to mothers who didn't want their children to play with "Chinos."
Taunted about her "Asian eyes," Deborah became obsessed with them. As she writes, "Seventeen (magazine, whose beauty pages showed readers how to give themselves 'big, beautiful eyes') taught me to hate my face." Richard lied when kids asked if he knew karate. This is poignant raw material, but the language, the details and the writers' reflections need to be amplified and honed to make a piece with more than one plaintive note.
Stanley Wilson's "Altar for the Americas: Looking Back Over My Shoulder with African Eyes: Endangered Species" is a brightly-colored, higgledy-piggledy sculptural tableau "rooted" in a patch of real earth. Upside-down black legs disappear into a pink house on stilts, a green animal balances on its tail, a terra cotta-colored woman dances, a black building flies through the air.
Wilson writes in a wall text that he intends his piece to "explore the unknown value of men of color in a threatened society." The small white tilted crosses that ring the house can be read as Xs, or "symbols of unknown value," Wilson says.