Miguel Angel Rojas gets political without getting polemical
The words "Houston" and "Curillo" are written on a piece of paper using little circles in earthy shades of green. The letters look like they were blown up from some dot matrix printer. The immediate question is, why are these two cities paired? Maybe something about Houston's trade with South America? Its role as a business gateway? Then you notice the dots themselves — the letters of "Curillo" have been punched from dollar bills; the letters of "Houston" seem to be made from circles hole-punched from leaves. Things become abundantly clear when you discover that the leaves are coca leaves. Curillo is a drug-producing center in Colombia, and the U.S. is the world's largest consumer of cocaine.
The work Houston/Curillo (2008) is a part of "Miguel Angel Rojas: FotoFest 2008" at Sicardi Gallery. Rojas is a Colombian artist, and his work was some of the strongest in "Apertura — Colombia," a group show of Colombian artists at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art [see "Sex, Drugs and Amputees," April 24]. The solo show at Sicardi is a welcome opportunity to see more from this phenomenal artist. Politics are notoriously difficult to deal with in art, but Rojas is one of the rare few who make politically and visually provocative art while sidestepping polemics.
Written with more coca leaf dots, text on a gallery wall reads "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?" The sentence is also the title of Richard Hamilton's seminal 1956 Pop Art collage, which presented a satiric take on 1950s lifestyles and consumer affluence. The artist uses the phrase to allude to the perceptions of glamour and affluence associated with cocaine use in the U.S. The phrase is in direct contrast to the humble earthiness of the leaves grown by rural farmers.
Billions of U.S. drug war dollars flow into Colombia to target the producers. The battle involves the government, guerrilla groups and drug lords, and the blood of the innocent is on everyone's hands. Casualties are high on the ground in Colombia, and land mines claim three victims a day — civilians and soldiers. In the Station's "Apertura," a number of works dealt with amputees, including Rojas's video of a soldier trying to wipe off camo face paint with the stumps of his forearms. That same video is also on view at Sicardi, along with images of another amputee.
In David (2005), a series of six life-size black-and-white photographs, a handsome young man poses naked, leaning against a wall. His left leg is gone below the knee. He looks like a classical statue whose limb was broken off centuries ago. He was a government soldier who stepped on a landmine. (Despite the nude's obvious art historical references, when Sicardi used the image on their show invitations, all kinds of people freaked out, calling and demanding to be taken off the gallery's mailing list. Apparently the only acceptable penises are those carved in marble.)
For the shoot, Rojas asked the young man to pose like Michelangelo's David. The kid didn't know who that was. For Rojas, this blatant educational gap illustrated an obvious problem to Rojas; young people turn to the military or coca farming or the drug trade because they don't have other options. (Putting his money where his convictions are, Rojas channels part of the sales proceeds from each photograph to the model.)
He made the piece Quiebramales/Evil Breaker (2005/2008) to address the education issue. Incredibly well intentioned, it is, unfortunately, a heavy-handed work. The letters of the title are spelled out using sharpened pencils stuck in a long plank of wood. The title is a play on the name for landmines: quiebrapatas, or "leg breakers." The pencils are meant to represent education as the solution. Although the piece is beautifully executed, it's conceptually hamfisted; Rojas's political convictions have overridden his aesthetic ones. It's reassuring in a way — Rojas is usually so good, it's scary.
But the artist is back on track with his video Borde de Pánico (On the Verge of Panic (2003). The video was shot in the violent and bar-filled neighborhood of Rojas's studio. The camera is directed at the concrete sidewalk as a hand, clad in a white surgical glove and grasping a white pencil, traces and connects blood spots on the pavement; the distance between them all is in inches, not feet. The video is perfectly screened, projected down on the concrete floor of the gallery, right by the viewer's own feet.
Like the best of Rojas's work, it's a simple idea that speaks volumes.
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