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This Glittery Lawn Mower Cuts to the Tough Questions

The installation is the highlight of an otherwise academic survey of the 'Postborder Metropolis.'


When was the last time you broke out in song doing something you loved?

Think back. Take your time. Even if you don't have many seconds to spare for such silly questions. If it helps, include those occasions you started singing when you were doing something uninteresting, like sitting in traffic, washing dishes or cutting the lawn.

These are the questions Ruben Ortiz Torres asks visitors to USC's Fisher Gallery, in whose grand foyer he has parked a customized lawn mower on a pedestal covered with artificial turf. Painted glitter-speckled fuchsia and adorned with a gold-plated "Power Tools" emblem and chain-link steering wheel, the souped-up lawn mower has also been rigged with a powerful boat battery and hydraulic system.

Titled "The Garden of Earthly Delights," it's accompanied by a hand-held remote control panel. Pushing various buttons causes the domestically scaled tractor's hood, fenders, grill and seat to rise overhead, tip back and forth, flap like wings and spin like pinwheels.

Nearby, a monitor plays a looped videotape of the lawn mower dancing to the beat of a pop ditty that fuses the pastoral sounds of birds chirping, leaves rustling and brooks babbling with the electronically manipulated noises of hedge clippers, weed whackers and leaf blowers.

Together, the low-rider lawn mower and homemade music video bring a smile to your face, a shuffle to your step and a bob to your head. They also set you to thinking about a world infinitely more wonderful than the one in which we live. "Imagine what it would be like," Ortiz Torres' performing hot rod asks, "if manual labor were not dull drudgery but joyous celebration--something so cool, stylish and fun that workers all over the world were inspired to customize the tools of their trades."

These musings lead to thorny economic questions about the relationship between labor and leisure. Recalling Rosa Luxemburg's refusal to embrace a revolution that had no time for dancing, Ortiz Torres' utopian lawn mower is smart not to oppose work and play, or to link pleasure and privilege. You don't need a doctorate in sociology to know that loads of disposable income are no guarantee of good taste, creativity or happiness, much less moral virtue.

"The Garden of Earthly Delights" is doubly funny because the brunt of its social critique is leveled against art-world academics. It mocks these lumpen-bureaucrats who behave as if art's job is to reflect its surroundings or, better yet, illustrate their pet theories about life in the big city. "Shut up and dance," the whirling dervish of a lawn tool proclaims, "discourse divorced from transformative activity is meaningless."

That's a lesson the co-curators of the 15-artist exhibition appear to be struggling to learn. Organized by Michael J. Dear, director of USC's Southern California Studies Center, and Gustavo Leclerc, director of the Border Cultures Project, "Mixed Feelings: Art and Culture in the Postborder Metropolis" is a badly titled, poorly conceived project that includes too much mediocre work among a handful of standouts. The exhibition, which doesn't know if it wants to be a carnival or a doctoral dissertation, settles for being a generic term paper about a vague relationship between art and its surroundings.

The title treats art as if it were a greeting card--an object that expresses its sender's sentiments. No serious contemporary artist would tell you that personal feelings play an important role in his work, whose public effect counts above all else. Feelings are for amateurs, therapy sessions and out-of-touch academics.

The easiest way for ivory-tower scholars to pretend to be onto something new is to slap the prefix "post" on an old idea. In the '80s, postmodernism was all the rage. More recently, it's been suggested that we live in a post-black era. Postborder art is the curators' attempt to keep the identity-oriented works that dominated the mid-1990s from dying a natural death. Their angle: focus on artists whose ethnicities are hyphenated.

Visually, their show divides in two. The most thought-provoking works are the most entertaining. These include Ortiz Torres' over-the-top lawn mower, Laura Alvarez's playfully subversive video featuring Sirvienta, a double agent disguised as a maid, and Einar and Jamex de la Torre's hilarious installation, a life-size lunar module in the shape of an ancient Olmec head.

An astronaut with a giant plastic heart in his backpack stands by the spacecraft, which is piloted by an angelic cherub seated backward atop a fur-covered hobbyhorse. Discarded car tires represent the moon's craters, in which gilded rattlesnakes lurk.

These generous, multilayered works engage viewers from many walks of life, promiscuously mixing metaphors (not feelings) as they stir up the melting pot and draw us all into the action. Other works aren't so successful.

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