Racing against time and the odds at Artpace 

A vinyl codex, built of hundreds of records stacked floor to ceiling, is the psychological and emotional center of William Cordova’s Artpace installation. It alternately glimmers and absorbs light, one minute a beacon, the next a black hole. Like other magical manmade ladders — Jack’s beanstalk, the Tower of Babel — it promises to elevate us above our mortal, earthbound limitations; creation for liberation. The Mayan codices, mostly destroyed following the Spanish conquest, contained hundreds of years of history, custom, and knowledge, the soul of a continuously evolving race. Cordova’s albums are the polyphonic product of a mongrel artistic output — not the official record, but the record of resistance. There’s a lot of shit in those hidden grooves, and it’s not establishment product.

Judging by the installation as a whole, the discs in Cordova’s artistic spine should be from the ’60s and ’70s, etched with pan-cultural messages of social and economic emancipation. A few steps away, two album covers take inspiration from Machu Picchu, the Incan ruins that touch the sky in Peru, Cordova’s birthplace. Herbie Hancock’s Thrust is one of the two covers, and in case you hadn’t caught it already, Cordova’s work tends the shared roots of African- and Latin-American resistance to oppression and genocide in the New World.

In the center of the gallery, half of an old police cruiser is tagged with “R.I.P.,” and the names of civil-rights heroes and martyrs such as former Black Panther party leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt (his name in turn evoking the legendary Apache warrior), jailed for a 1968 murder on suspect testimony. Sitting on blocks, its gaping middle covered with plywood, the car is also a shelter from which the homeless heirs of Eldridge Cleaver, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and bell hooks may yet emerge.

As with any art show, brains and gallery notes sometimes arrive at different stations. The record stack (remember Stax!), is titled “san antonio’s greatest hits (4-claude black, mario marcel salas, rosie castro y jose angel gutierrez),” a tribute to some of our local civil-rights heroes. (Salas, who has been prominent in the ongoing investigation and reform of the San Antonio Police Department, is also represented in a work on paper, “our
stories.”)

The most beautiful work (ah, those insidious Western aesthetics), a golden, wall-size collage, is, according to the notes, “a chronological history of colonialism in the Americas.” Small paper tires float against a gold-leaf sky, referencing Firestone, whose numerous crimes against humanity are chronicled in another work across the gallery, but they look like a Milky Way worthy of a latter-day Sistine Chapel, too, prompting visions of our trash orbiting in outer space, as well as medieval religious icons and Gustav Klimt’s opulent yet coolly distant eroticism.

I could have stayed all afternoon (we haven’t even talked about the video), and you should plan plenty of time to study the two-dozen-plus smaller works on paper, all of which are beautiful collages of found art, drawing, and assemblage in and of themselves, plus part of the larger historical imperative Cordova is salvaging from our pop-
culture diarrhea.

Downstairs, Mexico’s Marcos Ramirez ERRE and L.A.’s Mark Bradford round out the 08.2 New Works trio. Bradford took the neighboring Travis building as his inspiration, digging up news of its scandalous past as part of the 1980s-90s Savings & Loan crisis, harborer of stolen historical documents, and a lovers’ real-estate kickback. This history is revisited via two Express-News articles printed in a broadsheet that also features giant double-truck photos of the building’s exterior, its signature tiles decorated with a swirling aqua pattern, and a detail of a mural romanticizing the Alamo battle — most of which feels like filler.

In the gallery itself, “Travis” is engraved into the drywall in the same font used on the building, and on the opposite wall, the tile pattern is traced over partially plastered newsprint. It’s ghostly and inviting, but for the most part feels like a study for a future project. Maybe it’s unfair to compare the “Travis” newspaper (with its implicated longhorns) to the meaty “Newstar” published by Julieta Aranda for the April 2008 Sala Diaz show, You had no 9th of May!, but if you’re going to reference newspaper as artifact (especially poignant these days, when editors regularly discuss whether to change online digital archives at the request of upset or reformed subjects, and some editors argue, “Why not? It’s not like the library microfiche or files.”), don’t waste pulp. The most intriguing snippet is an excerpt from an interview with Californian artist Millard Sheets, who designed the Travis building in an Eastern/Mid-East pastiche. It hints at the way history is flushed of meaning and morals in our retellings and appropriations, but after Cordova’s second American revolution, Bradford’s room feels like a dry seminar on the Teapot Dome scandal.

Marcos Ramirez ERRE’s installation suffers some by comparison, too, but this time it’s really unfair: What artist of any stripe should be stuck in the starting gates with the Coen brothers? But, it’s impossible not to think longingly of No Country for Old Men’s early drug-deal shoot-out scenes while watching Ramirez’s video, projected on one wall of the gallery. A gunman, identified as “Tú” in mug shots across the room, shoots and kills “Yo” as he sits in his suburban in deserted South Texas terrain. Later, a team of familiar Artpace faces dressed in white lab coats documents the crime scene. Two investigators, one of whom is labeled “El” in the photos, arrive, and “El” appears to retrieve money tossed into the vehicle by “Tú” after the shooting. All of the protagonists are played by ERRE and drive identical black Chevy suburbans, illustrating the blurred lines between criminal, victim, and the law in the border drug wars. (I also loved the meta-commentary implied by showing Artpace employees working the scene, but this angle isn’t explored in the installation, and may be unintentional.)

Back at the gallery, narcocorridos — musical sagas of the drug life — play loudly while the suburban hogs the room, surrounded by shell casings. The gallery notes tell us the casings are engraved with the names of drug-war victims, echoing the commemorative war art that has inspired former Artpace residents Allison Smith and Dario Robleto, to name just two. (Smith collects old World War I munitions casings decorated by soldiers in the trenches.) But for some reason, crowded in this gallery, almost invisible on the cement floor, they lack the power of one good movie. According to the gallery notes, one of ERRE’s goals is to interrogate and counter the glorified drug-war images presented in popular culture, especially film, but gritty, verite cinematic representations of contemporary drug crime are as old as The French Connection. The Coens’ latest outing, and even Soderbergh’s preachy Traffic (thanks to Benicio del Toro) have effectively countered our subliminal Scarface highs.

Better are three wall-mounted wooden planks decorated with pieces of machine gun, spelling out “FRONT” “ERA” and “MIEDO,” straddling the Texas-Mexico line. Reminiscent of those wall hangings celebrating “the wire that tamed the West,” the wordplay (in Spanglish you could come up with “before the period of fear”) and crafty style mock the quaint tourist view of Mexico still hawked in parts of America, and the idea that a wall can subdue the complex exchange of money, power, and
violence.

But maybe us earnest, note-taking art patrons comprehend nothing. That’s one possible “message for `Artpace Executive Director` Mr. Drutt,” as advertised in the caption for a drawing in Oliver Lutz’s Hudson (Show)Room installation. Large, shiny black canvases fill the main gallery, serenaded by the human and engine roars of a NASCAR race. Benches in the center encourage you to sit and contemplate this anti-Rothko chapel: What the hell’s going on here? An adjacent gallery that feels like a control room contains studies and drawings based on stills from the race you can hear but not see. Those stills are captured on small, black-and-white sets on the back wall, along with screens that show the finished larger-than-life paintings based on those images that the viewer is prevented from observing firsthand. A digital Plato’s cave? I don’t want to spoil the fun for you by revealing more, so head on down to Main Street before Lutz’s work, his first solo museum show, commissioned by Artpace, comes down August 17. •


VISUAL ART

New Works: 08.2
Through Sep 7

Oliver Lutz: Paint it Black
Through Aug 17

Noon-5pm Wed-Sun, noon-8pm Thu, & by appt.
Free
Artpace
445 N. Main
(210) 212-4900
artpace.org


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