I visit SJMOA on a quarterly basis and its diverse and thoughtful art collection never ceases to inspire me. Yesterday, I took a trip downtown and visited the museum to see its new exhibitions, Beta Space and Liquid City. I won’t be talking about Fragile Water, Darkened Mirror, or Your Mind, This Moment, but they’re definitely worth checking out if you do plan on visiting SJMOA.
In Beta Space and Liquid City, both Victor Cartagena and Diana Al-Hadid play with the form and medium of their work to express their more abstract political messages. It’s not necessarily their shock value that makes these exhibitions so intriguing and thought-provoking. Rather, Cartagena and Al-Hadid so incisively and cleverly flesh out the connection between form and function.
In Beta Space, Victor Cartagena, an El Salvadorian artist, collaborates with the Salinas chapter of the United Farm Workers, which has fought for the rights of migrant workers since 1962. San Jose native Cesar Chavez founded the United Farm Workers. In his work, Cartagena is particularly keen on the relationship between migrant exploitation and the consumption of big industry sugar companies like C&H Sugar, which was founded in the Bay Area. Here are some of my favorite pieces:
- Labor Tea. Its name an ironic play on words to “liberty,” Labor Tea is a sculpture that resembles a giant brown Christmas tree of sorts. It is made entirely from sepia-colored used brown tea bags, each of which has a photograph slipped inside of it. They are faded beneath their transparent sepia pouches, which hang somberly and delicately like droopy leaves on an old tree. The piece is haunting, its faded aesthetic conveying how consumers often forget and dismiss the difficult labor that goes into their cheap, mass-produced goods.
- Sugar Face, 2016. In Sugar Face, Cartagena creates faces made from sugar and water from the actual face of a migrant worker, Maurilio Maravilla. Over time, the pieces will warp and decay in the exhibit. The faces look mutant, warped and dripping sugar water down the gallery walls. This transformation signifies how invisible, how tragically insignificant the human labor behind the product is to the average consumer.
In Liquid City, Diana Al-Hadid explores the concept of boundaries—whether they’re architectural, sculptural, or experiental—and the subsequent implications of boundaries. In particular, she interested in themes like alienation versus belonging, transparency versus restriction, and real versus imaginary. Viewing her work is like reading an Anne Carson translation of Sappho—there are creative liberties for the viewer to take when taking in her work fully. Here are my favorite pieces.
- Nolli’s Orders, 2012. Nolli’s Orders is a gargantuan structure that resembles something between a palace and archaic city structure. It’s constructed from an eclectic list of materials: steel, polymer gypsum, fiberglass, wood, foam, plaster, aluminum foil, and pigment. Al-Hadid draws from the eighteenth-century architect Giambattista Nolli’s map of Rome, in which the architect established a cartographic standard of accuracy and detail. White spaces are public, like churches and theaters, whereas private spaces are indicated by black. Al-Hadid’s Nolli’s Orders was inspired by this distinction between private and public with visual cues like transparent and opaque and void and solid. Its wildly intricate conglomerate form, of course, takes the modern liberty to play upon the ambiguities in these distinctions.
- Mob Mentality, 2014. Al-Hadid plays between two-dimensional and three-dimensional configurations with Mob Mentality, an intricate tapestry-like piece that hovers over the blank wall. At first the piece looks as though it were made from paint drippings that form arbitrary lattices of empty space. But upon more scrutiny, you’ll notice a solid quality to it, solid in its construction and solid in that when you step back, it resembles a flat image of a cathedral of sorts. It’s influenced by a range of different slices in architectural history, from Hellenistic influences of ruins near Aleppo to Moorish Spanish cathedrals. It can be viewed as a personal and psychological work as well. In interviews, the artist has discussed immigrating from Syria to Ohio and speaks of her unfamiliarity and uneasiness about Christian imagery, which is forbidden in Islamic art.