A few days before the first annual Sur Biennial was set to close at the end of November, its curator and head of propaganda, Ronald Lopez (formerly of 18th Street, currently of Outpost for Contemporary Art), who had been brought in by my friend and colleague Robert Miller of ceramic studios, commercial gallery, and arts education fame, made good on his promise to get me down there, even if it meant picking me up and bringing me there himself. This was a fortuitous turn of events for many reasons. A) I don’t drive a car and the Biennial was installed across three locations in the greater Whittier area. B) Even if I did drive I wasn’t totally sure where greater Whittier actually was or how to get there. C) Ron is an affable and erudite companion, and he took full advantage of the drive time to explain to me the network of subtle and not-so-subtle thoughts and actions that went into the realization of what he and Miller hope will be a regular addition to the LA art calendar.
As an aside, not for nothing is Lopez an expert marketing, production, and enthusiasm-raiser type of guy. The door to door service included a stop at his family’s stylish and fantastic coffee shop on Porter Street, Porter Junction Cafe, where even the iced coffee is hand-crafted and there’s a breakfast sandwich named for Elvis. So we got started on the right foot. Which was good, because I would have been lost without him from the second we got on the Freeway, and I needed the caffeine. Adventures into the unknown can be exhausting!
The Story of Sur is by definition, many things to many people — and none of it is what you might think. The idea for the name came to Lopez by way of a very non-art-world shade of cultural meme; which has to do with gang culture in our state prison system. It seems that the way incarceration works at the state level, is such that members of rival gangs often end up in close quarters. But there are different levels of “rival,” which include not only your local, back-home, day-to-day enemies, but combatants in a more epic, Northern versus Southern Cali battle that crosses generational lines. The idea being, that when confronted with a larger enemy, folks form united fronts, and nominal enemies from down the block become brethren. A temporarily more inclusive group identity is forged from fractious elements, and a common history embraced, at least on the battlefield.
So with that semiotic framework in mind (though no profound consideration of gang culture ensues) Miller and Lopex set about putting together an ambitious debut with an eye toward redefining what is meant by Latino culture in the Greater LA art continuum. In other words, to move beyond familiar tropes of Chicano painting and folk-based art to take a real look at the involvement of artists with Latino heritage in modernism, performance, politically active, and non-traditional art forms. The idea to locate the show in two college campuses and one community gallery was a meaningful one to both Miller (who teaches at Rio Hondo and runs the gallery there) and Lopez, who went to art school but, “Never saw any crazy shit like this in art class.” For him, simply providing access and exposure to an accessible avant-garde is a radical educational move. That’s why the Biennial’s buzz words are: Adaptation, Assimilation, Acculturation, and its directives are: Educate, Activate, Provocate.
The first thing you might have noticed if you were lucky enough to see the show(s) with or without benefit of a concierge and driver, is that there was no painting to speak of — a mural project, a few elements of large installations, but no just-painting paintings. Sculpture, video, installation, performance, even opera, sure. In other words, everything but painting, the logic being that’s the one thing people know about Latino art already, and the point of Sur was to take the discourse to the next level, to get beyond the stereotypes and expectations, and see the Latino art “community” and something that itself transcends community, and has its practitioners in every facet of contemporary art.
Among the most impactful of the pieces in terms of making this point, my favorite was an astonishing sculpture by Gustavo Godoy at Cerritos College, in which he demonstrated every bit of whimsy, folly, and structural complexity typically found in his room-size pieces, but in his version of miniature (meaning about the size of a dune buggy). Also at Cerritos were a huge mural by Castillo which used photography and drawing in a mammoth collage that was both similar to and entirely different from her normal 3-D and often site-specific sculptures; a video piece by Elana Mann featuring the singing of a 16th-century folk song about preserving private intellectual and spiritual freedom in the face of various types of social and economic oppression and persecution. Though not a Latin song — it’s roots are in
Europe, Persia and North Africa — it speaks directly to another kind of Sur Lopez had in mind, one which reverses the flow so as to explore the mutual mingling of experiences between and among Latinos in a global historical context, not just art, and not just in California, despite its clarified expressions here.
Also brilliant were coffin-based sculptures by Martin Durazo, photographs of himself peeing on famous museums by Ichiro Irie, both at Rio Hondo. In both cases for very different reasons, humor and genuine irreverence were paired up against institutional and art historical structures to create counterpoints of aesthetic experience that between them took into account both specific and general relationships to contemporary art, having to do with gender, race, and nationality without dealing directly with any of those things. Over at the third venue, the Bluebird Arthouse, Vidal Herrera’s low-rider coffin couch with its pink leatherette and gold-plated grotto, inspired by the artist’s perception that his culture was under-appreciated by its own heirs, ended the excursion on a high note. Across the board, a dark humor prevailed despite the deadly seriousness of the artistic practices that were examined, and I was left feeling that not only my functional definition of Latino art had been forever expanded, but so had my definition of Los Angeles as a city itself.