In a nation largely made up of immigrants, American art has always been rooted in both native and foreign soils. The 11 Latino and African American artists chosen by SPACES curator Angelica Pozo for the show Bi-Lingual find their formal choices and subject matter in the sometimes-confining gaps between cultures. The boundaries they explore are both the physical gridlock of city blocks and the more porous membranes of the mind, where the language and imagery of disparate heritages mix and drift, alternately bridging and defining cultural difference.
Saskia Jordá's sculptural installation "[karto gra'fia]" hangs from the ceiling near the entrance to the gallery, near SPACE's front wall of windows. Bathed in light from the street, Jordá's work is the show's clearest metaphor for the complexity of a bilingual personal and artistic identity. Born in Venezuela, Jordá moved to the United States as a teenager and presently is based in rural Wisconsin. Her three-part work, executed entirely in handmade felt, consists of two life-size doors - one white with a red knob, the other red with a white knob - facing each other a few feet apart. Between them, a neurological-looking tangle of creamy felt twists and turns like a pocketful of Mšbius strips. Among other things, "[karto gra'fia]" is a metaphor for "Spanglish," the mixing of language and signification in a bilingual brain. Jordá says that, for her, the white door is English. While this is also the dominant color of her synaptic whirl, short red sections punctuate its flow. The soft felt, which Jordá made with cotton, water, heat and the friction of her hands, speaks of permanent, intimate life changes produced by the pressures of influence and necessity.
Not everything at Bi-Lingual is so cogent. In their mixed-media installation "Oh Mary Jane, we are wandering out on this desert plain/We have no canteen … can the thirsty stay sane after what they've seen?" University of Michigan's (Ann Arbor) V. Robin Grice and Nicole Marroquin seem to have a lot on their minds, but it's hard to say what. A mannequin, partially dressed in knitwear and decoupage, lies on the floor, near a large pink purse full of cotton and a pile of mysterious small packages marked with the symbol "O." Nearby, an old woman's head and torso perch on a small, wheeled plastic cart, her hands resting on the floor. Ropes wrap around her shoulders, attached to four large, fanciful eyeballs (I think), as if she were being pulled by them. Against the wall, a cloud that appears to be made of Afro wigs, like from the '70s, floats at eye level. Barbie dolls in ski masks poke out from the curls of the smoky mass. In their statement, the Michigan artists write, "We're attempting to locate the everyday realities of patriarchy, racism and class bias." But audiences need some clarification to understand the personal stories that underlie Grice and Marroquin's exposition at SPACES.
By contrast, Cleveland painter Michelangelo Lovelace's unsparing scenes of urban life, infused with brilliant primary colors and emblazoned with words of warning and hope, are crystal clear. His truth-speaking manner with strong Christian content is modeled in part on the confessional and inspirational painting of his mentor, the late Reverend Albert Wagner, but strikes out into evangelical territory of its own, passionately advocating personal and social change. His acrylic-on-canvas "Caught in the Crossfire" (2007) is a compositional tour de force, using a depiction of a zigzagging line of yellow police tape to lead the eye through vignettes of pathos and horror. Bruno Casiano's 6-foot-square mixed-media canvas "Cleveland" is also a success. The startlingly beautiful work shows human figures emerging from a complex, collage-like ground of light and shadow, pattern and color. Casiano says that his paintings recapture the rich light and shade of childhood experiences in Puerto Rico, mixed with the industrial skies of Ohio. In "Cleveland," the figure of a saint - or perhaps of an orisha - wears a garment made from the front page of an early Cleveland newspaper featuring a headline story about a labor dispute.
New York-based artist Shani Richards contributes photographs of models wearing oversize bling spelling out epithets like "hoe" hanging above the jewelry itself, which is mounted on pedestals, in a satire of gangsta fashion. In a darkened side gallery, Los Angeles video-and-film artist Akosua Adoma Owusu screens rhythmic works built from colorful abstract patterns and archival footage reflecting the doubleness of her experience as the child of an American family of Ghanese heritage. In the adjacent SPACELab gallery this month, internationally known Cleveland filmmaker Robert Banks shows Equal Languages, a black-and-white video-and-sound composition exploring contemporary modes of private and public manipulation.
Ecuadoran-born Cleveland Heights resident Rafael Valdivieso-Troya's three large mixed-media paintings rendered on wood and steel in black, red and brown tones are scenes from a private epic speaking of death and rebirth, confinement, personal struggle and liberation. Expressing a nearly opposite sensibility, New York artist Sana Musasama's small, mysterious objects combine ceramic materials with relatively perishable ephemera like hair, bamboo, deer horn and roses. Musasama evokes the infinite range of intimate experience stored in the body, available through sight and touch. Resembling large seed pods, her narrow, pocketlike works are passports to the past, distilled from fire and fiber and time.
Current SPACES' World Artist Program resident Juan-S’ González works here with wife and collaborator Paloma Dallas in a series of video projections and installations titled "Migraci—n of Language," meditating on the gradual, sometimes painful transformations that immigration demands. On one wall at the rear of SPACES, González and Dallas show a windowlike montage, about 5 feet high and 12 feet long, centering around a larger-than-life color photograph of a pair of bare feet and ankles. On either side hang the links of many paper chains listing events in González's personal history, flanked at each end by the pages of his résumé. Other parts of the complex piece, spread over two rooms, are images projected on sand and video footage, evoking "the vast human history of migration and transculturation." Part of "Migraci—n" is an ongoing series of interviews with bilingual Cleveland residents.
Despite a few overly provisional and obscure moments, Bi-Lingual is an intriguing, sometimes stirring example of what SPACES has learned to do best over the past three decades, combining very different aesthetic and procedural approaches to sketch the outlines of contemporary cultural issues. It also has been an opportunity for new SPACES Executive Director Christopher Lynn to get his feet wet and his hands dirty, helping to oversee and install an exemplary SPACES exhibit.