New York Times: Finkel, Recipe for Revolution

Take 11,000 Photos


Jori Finkel


THE next time you’re stuck in traffic in downtown Los Angeles, you could find yourself in the perfect position to view Ruben Ochoa’s newest work of art. A San Diego native who made his name locally by turning his family’s beat-up van into a mobile art gallery, Mr. Ochoa has just completed a billboard celebrating the legacy of the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. It features a photograph of Siqueiros, who was a Communist Party leader as well as a painter, making a fist, his face streaked with paint, as two characters in the corner whitewash his image — a clear allusion to the censorship of Siqueiros’s social realist murals in the past. Across the top runs the phrase ”Ain’t that revolutionary?”

Mr. Ochoa’s billboard is one of many overtly political pieces created for ”An Image Bank for Everyday Revolutionary Life,” a group show that opens at the Redcat gallery in Los Angeles on Thursday. For the exhibition, 17 artists were asked to respond to Siqueiros’s photographic archive, some 11,000 pictures that served as source material for his murals or as documentation of his finished artwork.

Most of the artists lifted images from the archive to make pieces like photomontages for installation in the gallery. Three artists based in Los Angeles — Mr. Ochoa, Mark Bradford and Daniel Martinez — also signed on to make billboards. They are scheduled to be installed downtown by the end of the week.

Lauri Firstenberg, one of the show’s two curators, says she views the billboards as an essential part of the show. ”Siqueiros was above all a populist artist — making art for the public and positioning it in the public sphere,” she said. ”We always wanted to have a component of the exhibition that was not bound to the gallery but would interact with L.A.’s urban landscape.”

Born in 1896, Siqueiros at one point interacted with the Los Angeles landscape himself. Driven into exile for political reasons in 1932, he took a job teaching at the Chouinard School of Art and painted ”Street Meeting,” the first of three California murals, on the campus. During that period he experimented with new materials (automobile paints, for example, a more durable alternative to traditional fresco materials) and new equipment (like spray guns, a faster way of applying paint than brushwork). He also seized on photography as a tool for painting, using photographs of a work in progress to help guide its composition. (Those pictures recently led to the Chouinard Foundation’s rediscovery of ”Street Meeting,” a vision of black and white workers joining forces, which had long been presumed destroyed but in fact was buried under layers of paint and plaster in what is now a Korean church.)

Beginning in the 1930’s, Siqueiros saved many of the photographs that he gathered and commissioned from friends, professionals, newspapers and news agencies. There were photographs of the murals and photographs that fed the murals, ranging from staged shots of models to documentary photographs showing class and race struggles like labor union protests in Mexico City and the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Other pictures — animals, landscapes and buildings — seem more neutral.

When Siqueiros died in 1974, there were more than 11,000 images. He specified in his will that his archive, housed at the Sala de Arte Publico Siqueiros in Mexico City, be made available free for public use, something like a Communist version of Corbis or Getty Images.

About half the archive can now also be viewed at the Web site, an arts portal based in New York. Its director, Anton Vidokle, the other curator of the Redcat show, says he thought of putting the archive online when he visited it three years ago. ”I was blown away by the material,” he said. ”I haven’t seen a group of pictures this ideological since my childhood in Moscow. Even a humble image like a drill bit is celebrated — it’s seen as beautiful, glamorous, a tool for revolution.”

About two years ago, Mr. Vidokle and Ms. Firstenberg began drawing up a list of international artists to approach for the show. Many were Mexican or Chicano. ”It was important to work with artists who have a connection to Siqueiros,” Mr. Vidokle said. ”But it’s not like I went into their studios and asked to check their passports.”

And, as it happened, they did not so much choose the artists as the artists chose them. To line up the 17 artists in the show, more than half of Mexican descent, the curators approached a few dozen. The Los Angeles conceptual artist John Baldessari and the Cuban installation artist Carlos Garaicoa were among those who proved unavailable. ”It’s a sign of how busy our leading international artists are these days,” Ms. Firstenberg said. ”But it’s also a sign, I think, of how contested Siqueiros’s legacy is.”

Even some artists who chose to participate expressed ambivalence. Many say they are attracted by Siqueiros’s political engagement, but repelled by his particular brand of politics and his link to a failed assassination attempt on Trotsky. As the Los Angeles-based artist Ruben Ortiz Torres put it: ”He’s a very dogmatic character, a Stalinist who believed that power should be centralized. But my relationship to Siqueiros is like my relationship to my father, or to Mexico in general. It’s not a choice between rejecting them or following them mindlessly.”

For the show, Mr. Ortiz Torres animated several famous images in the archive, including the picture of a snarling dog taken by the Colombian photographer Leo Matiz. In the seven-minute video, one image morphs into another: a nude woman becomes the dog, which then becomes a war amputee. In part, Mr. Ortiz Torres said, the violent imagery reflects his ambivalence about Siqueiros. But he added that it also refers to Siqueiros’s many innovations, from his rather cinematic use of perspective to his early use of liquid paint, which he once demonstrated to Jackson Pollock.

”Formally, this guy was amazing,” Mr. Ortiz Torres said. ”There would be no Pollock without Siqueiros. There would be no American art without Siqueiros.”

Ken Gonzales-Day was drawn to another image in the archive: a 1970 picture of Whittier Boulevard in Los Angeles in flames during the riots in which the journalist Reuben Salazar was shot. He placed the photograph at the base of a 12-foot-tall banner that shows a tower of smoke. ”Everyone knows about the Watts riots and Rodney King, but the Salazar riots are overlooked because they involved Latinos, who tend to be invisible, the invisible issue, the invisible labor, in Los Angeles,” Mr. Gonzales-Day said. ”That’s something I share with Siqueiros: the desire to make invisible social histories visible.”

Perhaps the most aggressively political work in the show is a photomontage about the war in Iraq made by Martha Rosler, a Brooklyn artist known for her activism. Her panorama, from left to right, features a soldier running in the desert, a soldier running with a prosthetic leg, a group of rifles and a mess of statuary casts that resemble a pile of bones — forming a narrative that leads right to the graveyard. For the rifles, she took a picture of an antique rifle from the Siqueiros archive and multiplied the image using Photoshop.

Ms. Rosler praised the ”Image Bank” exhibition for bringing politics into the contemporary art world — where, she said, conversations ”lack any social resonance or else take place in such low whispers that you can’t hear them.”

Mr. Vidokle says that turning up the volume was exactly the point….