Review: LACMA’s “Home–So Different, So Appealing”

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Though I live in New York, my hometown on the Texas-Mexico border is never far from my heart. El Paso tugs on heartstrings and makes its way into my conversations and tastes. Traces of burnt color, images of family, distinctively Latino sculptural techniques, and the history of Latino and indigenous religiosity make me nostalgic. So it was with enthusiasm that I went to see LACMA’s summer exhibition Home—So Different, So Appealing: Art from the Americas since 1957, funded by Pacific Standard Times’ ‘“LA/LA: A Celebration Beyond Borders.” At home both in the art world and in the culture being celebrated in the exhibit, I thought I was in for an easy treat.

The exhibit’s unusual framework was my first hint that the experience would not be what I’d imagined. Very often survey shows like this are organized by chronology or geography, but works in this exhibition were organized conceptually. The curators used a “constellation model,” grouping works by artists from different nationalities, generations, and levels of success together. Curator Mari Carmen Ramírez, whose earlier exhibitions developed this model, explains, “The constellations are arranged according to conceptual or formal affinities as well as tensions that illuminate unsuspected relations between the artists and their production.”

In his forward, Chon Noreiga, co-curator, explained: “The constellations are just a starting point… These artists break down the notion of home as somehow a boundary between inside and outside, public and private, self and other, citizen and foreigner.” This exhibit was not about geography as much as about displacement and migration amid a changing political and socio-economic landscape. It was about “otherness” and “absence.” Rather than finding myself at home in a place I knew, I was going to have to wrestle with how one might be “at home with oneself” when there was no place to come home to.

The exhibition’s title is pulled from a text-based work (the first piece on display) by Miguel Angel Rojas, a response to British artist Richard Hamilton’s iconic pop art collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, a mid-century depiction of American excess and post-war consumerism. The images in the collage were sourced from a stash of American magazines, and the work’s title a caption to an illustration in the cast-off trimmings. Though clearly an ‘interior,’ the image is more of an allegory than a representation of a room. Expanding on Hamilton’s statement about the United States, Rojas used coca leaves—cocaine—to link American consumerism with the trafficking of drugs between the U.S. and Colombia, his home country.

That consumerism to which Hamilton referred has in many cases blunted the edge of the art world even when it desires to comment on American excesses. Peter Schjeldahl, art critic from The New Yorker, describes this as “an irony endemic to museum presentations of politically refractory art: whatever discontent the artists express is cushioned by their inclusion in—say it—élite institutional culture.” Paradoxically, statements on poverty and “outsiders” are all too often redirected by their funding and presentation by the wealthy and at-home who can’t help but twist the stories they wish to tell.

This exhibit should have been no different. But the sincerity of these works and their resonance both with their audience and those related to the subject was uncanny. I’ve only been to LACMA one other time, so I don’t know what their audiences are normally like, but Home had drawn a very intrigued and diverse public. Though the works were by world class artists, there was an absence of the usual gallery-going pretense I’ve come to expect in New York. I can’t know, but as a robust and multi-site education initiative, my hunch is that Pacific Standard Times’ “Celebration Beyond Borders” was just that—for all.

Constellations included “Model Homes,” focusing on the fabrication of the American Dream as seen in the single-family home. “Archaeology of the Home” explored domestic objects in public/private life, “Mapping Home” traced geography and movement, and “Going Home,” displayed works capturing northern journeys of migration and diaspora.

Walking into Room 1, I entered a constellation called “Recycled Home,” a collection of works blurring the boundary between debris and domesticity, especially in low-income urban centers. In one work, Carmen Argote had turned the rug from her childhood home into a massive wall sculpture (“720 Sq. Ft. Household Mutations – Part B”). As a hanging sculpture, the cutout was gigantic, but when considered as the blueprint of a house in the Argentine countryside—every stain and mark a family story—it seemed quite small.

Abraham Cruzvillegas’ work “Autoconstruccion” is a sprawling site-specific makeshift house that could have been found in Colonia Ajusco, the shantytown he grew up in south of Mexico City. Deemed uninhabitable and hazardous by urban planners, it reminded me of my childhood view of Juarez, Mexico’s colonias seen from the door of my American ranch style house.  As a child, familiarity had disguised the disparity between the housing in the States and the housing a few miles south. The arbitrariness of human dividing lines was a little more clear to me now as I viewed Cruzvillegas’ house.

The house’s proximity to Julio Cesar Morales’ video “Boy in Suitcase,” part of the “Going Home” constellation,  intensified its effect. Though Morales is Latino, “Boy in Suitcase” rehearses the real-life story of an eight-year-old boy who was smuggled inside a suitcase from the Ivory Coast through Morocco and Spain. According to Morales, the work “attempts to create visuals from the boy’s perspective of what he might have seen through a small zipper and tiny holes in the suitcase that features some kind of spiral hallucinations and a bewildering type of colors and sounds.” After two minutes of seeing what the boy may have seen, viewers see the actual x-ray image taken by Spanish custom officials when the boy was discovered.

Round the corner from Morales’ piece was a constellation I’d thought would provide me with another opportunity to reminisce. Earlier this summer I had the privilege (made more apparent to me over the course of this show) of seeing the fully restored Ghent Altarpiece at St. Bavo’s Cathedral, so I was transfixed by “Políptico de Buenos Aires” (2014/2016), a sort of full-scale replica of the altarpiece depicting wealth disparities amongst dwellers of the Argentinian capital city. Panel by panel, I saw a meticulously painted scene of Buenos Aires’ wealthy downtown pushed right up against a local shanty town called Villa 31.

“Badge of Honor” left the strongest impression on me. I tend to shrug off too literal depictions, but that’s just what was needed to dignify and ground what could’ve been simple spectacle. Here, Puerto Rico-born Philadelphian Pepón Osorio split a 12 ft x 8 ft room in half: on one side is a typical Latino boy’s room, packed with posters, sports equipment, and a dazzling lava lamp (you have to see it to believe how right it was). The painstaking and meticulous rendering of the space drew me in, prompting me to notice CD collections and magazines. But it was the stark contrast of the other side of the room—an empty prison cell, with only a cot, latrine, and bedside table—that shifted my perspective. In video projections on opposite sides of the room, the boy whose room I see talks with his father, who has been jailed for an unspecified crime with a release date unknown.

Perhaps the most widely-recognized artist in the show, Cuban-born Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (North),” closed the exhibition with one of his minimalist light bulb installations. I’ve tended to see his work with some political urgency. However, situated as a part of this “constellation,” the fifteen strands of bulbs took on new meaning, and the title made sense. “North” were the lights of American border cities in view on a long journey to an unknown destination.

In her catalogue for Rhetorical Image, a group show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, curator Milena Kalinovska recalls what Gonzalez-Torres remarks about one of his portraits memorializing an AIDS victim: “I suppose I would be satisfied if [the audience] took action sometimes, or if it caused them to be critical, moved, inspired. Or to celebrate difference and the idea of change and renewal, the chance for love.”

Whether its audience is moved to love or not, in Home the sincerity was palpable in a way unusual in the contemporary art world. In an ecosystem where consumerism is currency, and duplicity is a commodity, intimacy and sincerity are difficult to maintain. But because of the organizing curatorial principles behind this exhibition—home as the crux, not just the artist’s country of origin, kitsch reads true, plastic somehow seems organic, bling has a good tarnish, and the stationary rages with the movement of an exodus.

When reviewing Home, Schjeldahl (cited above) mentioned an earlier event he’d covered, the 1993 Whitney Biennial, arguably the most important contemporary art event in the United States, and remarked that he had initially panned the show for its politicization of aesthetics, a newish but growing trend at the time. A decade and a half later, his views had changed: “Now I see that it had to happen, for urgent social reasons, and that it energized a then pepless art world.”

Politically charged yet not blatantly activist, the exhibit reminded me that nostalgia is the basest response one can cultivate when encountering new works of art. Though nostalgia is pleasurable and has a certain utility, to visit the exhibition expecting and desiring nothing else is a privilege given to those of us who are already at home, secure enough in our experiences to long to experience them once again.

Fortunately, Home’s curator assembled an exhibit that could subvert even the most sentimental viewer’s backward glance. Those looking for a cozy feeling of home encountered a kind of political statement, but not one pasted on or contrived. The statements made were inseparable from the art, forcing viewers who have never been homeless, and most likely never will be, to become temporarily conceptual wanderers.

Writing about the Jews in Europe after the war, Jacques Derrida asked which was more essential to authentic hospitality: the possession of a home in which to host or the experience of dislocation that would inspire the hospitality? As he suggests, “perhaps only the one who endures the experience of being deprived of a home can offer hospitality.”

In an unexpected turn of events, Home’s next home is in Houston, where it will be mounted from November 2017 to January 2018. This was the plan long before the havoc that Hurricane Harvey wreaked on the area, leaving thousands displaced and without shelter. As Houstonians resettle, finding new homes or returning to homes made strange, perhaps they will find themselves especially drawn to an exhibit that reminds viewers that the experience of home is an experience of transience, impermanence, displacement, and otherness when one’s house is a new home.

Will that message result in increased empathy and hospitality? Whether or not it does, I know my own ideological dislocation was a good thing. Home met me where I was and made that world strange, welcoming me into the artists’ world. As their guest, I didn’t get what I wanted; I got so much more than I deserved.

[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]

Meaghan Ritchey

Originally from El Paso Texas, Meaghan Ritchey has been in NYC since 2005. This autumn she started as Commonweal Magazine’s Director of Community and Events. Concurrently she adjuncts for Baylor in New York, the University’s Film and Digital Media Studies Program in the city and operates MaKeR Projects to serve organizations like CIVA, Sea Dog Theater, and Mockingbird. Previously she was Director of Global Community at International Arts Movement and publisher of The Curator, an online arts magazine.