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Art review: At MexiCali Biennial, cannibalism is consuming theme

A show at Vincent Price Art Museum that features work by artists and collectives from the U.S. and Mexico has some hits and not a few misses.

January 28, 2013|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Dino Dinca & Rafa Esparza, "Paletas de Sangre," 2012, mixed media.
Dino Dinca & Rafa Esparza, "Paletas de Sangre," 2012, mixed… (Christopher Knight / Los…)

As an eye-catching theme for an exhibition, cannibalism surely ranks right up there.

At East Los Angeles College's Vincent Price Art Museum, cannibalism is the motif driving the third MexiCali Biennial, a show that packs the work of 26 artists and collectives from the U.S. and Mexico into relatively small quarters.

Given the venue, which is named for an erudite actor who was both Yale-trained in art history and popular for ghoulish turns in horror movies, the cannibalism theme also exudes a wry, site-specific cheekiness.

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None of the show's binational artists is involved in actually eating anyone's liver with (or without) some fava beans and a nice Chianti. But as a metaphor for approaching art today, an image of consuming the body of one's own kind is what artists Ed Gomez and Luis G. Hernandez and art historian Amy Pederson, who acted as guest curators, have in mind.

Artist's name: The caption accompanying this article on the MexiCali Biennial incorrectly spelled Dino Dinco's last name as Dinca.

Sometimes the trope is blunt. For "Paletas de Sangre," Dino Dinco and Rafa Esparza have filled a jauntily decorated and apparently gruesome street-vending cart with frozen ice-pops said to be made from blood. In reality that's unlikely, but point taken: The blood-pops suggest the rather common knowledge that survival economics on Main Street, not just cutthroat corporatism on Wall Street, are dog-eat-dog.

Usually the metaphor is more oblique, and thus considerably more resonant. Ana Baranda has disassembled and then reconstructed four shirts commercially made for private security officers. Like a garment worker economically thriving because of the threat of crime, she stitched the pieces together to form one long, eight-armed, multi-necked, cascading blouse.

Titled "Échale Ganas," Spanish slang for "Go for it," the succession of shirts creates a visual likeness of one body swallowing another. A privatized descendant of Chris Burden's oversize 1993 "L.A.P.D. Uniforms," made in the wake of the previous year's L.A. riots, Baranda's shirt is big enough for a mutant giant. That the necessarily monstrous wearer of such a garment would be a privately enlisted rent-a-cop, rather than a civil servant, is a sobering conclusion impossible to avoid.

Occasionally the relationship between the work and the show's theme is difficult to decipher. Carolyn Castaño, who is better known for poignantly lurid paintings related to the Latin American drug wars, shows an impressive video that had its debut at Walter Maciel Gallery last year.

"The Female Report" is Castaño's satirical, wonderfully dizzying TV news broadcast whose professionally astute anchorwoman, provocatively attired in a ruffled pink blouse, slides seamlessly between English and Spanish to chronicle snippets of stories by, about and for women in the Americas — North, Central and South. (For the bilingually impaired, her fractured fairy-tale news is closed-captioned.)

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Subjects range from serious politics to trivial entertainment, murderous mayhem to lighthearted madness, booming mass media to chaotic social media, all delivered with the same degree of clipped, televisual banality familiar from local and network news.

The speed and circularity with which one subject or language in "The Female Report" merges into another could, I suppose, be likened to events swallowing one another whole through today's filtered media environment. "We have accomplished a lot," intones the reporter in reference to recent developments in women's rights, the depth of her exposed cleavage at the anchor desk suggesting certain limitations to the progress.

But the garbage-in, garbage-out quality of what typically passes for journalism on television is wholly transformed by the artist's skillfully scripted and edited composition. She blows the authoritative source material to smithereens. A viewer, disabused of casual acceptance of televised reality, is left to pick up the pieces.

Christopher Reynolds does something similar in his deft mixed-media painting, "Appetite Apparatus #1 (Baker-Miller Pink, Suppressant)," albeit in a wholly different way. Reynolds takes dead aim at the institutionalization of what was once avant-garde art.

The abstract painting offers up a framed panel of flat, bright-pink color. This particular hue was scientifically developed more than 30 years ago as a biomedical means for calming agitated patients.

That would be you and me, rushing off to see the latest biennial.

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