The first Curator-in-Residence for the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Risa Puleo, took a final extravagant bow this last December with her organization and presentation of Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly.
This extensive swan song of a group exhibit, which continues until Feb. 24, fills all five of the main galleries at the Bemis Center. The vast multi-media exhibition is an invitational featuring thirty-seven artists chosen by Puleo after extensive research and studio visits.
Puleo’s inspiration came from a personal interest in political and social concerns related to migration and immigration, displacement and cultural violation.
She saw the Monarch butterfly, with its international migratory lifestyle, as an apt metaphor offering a structure with which to both conduct her search and codify the exhibit.
The show consists of video art, installation, sculpture, paintings, drawings, quilts, performance, and even museum-style displays. Spatially, it is divided into three subgroups: Migrations, over both space and time; Inheritance, of purpose and culture; and Transformation, the manifestation of rebirth.
The Monarch butterfly moves over vast distances from Canada south, following a path through various states, finally to Mexico, and back. Due to their short lives, the entire process spans about four generations of butterflies.
They tend to follow paths and patterns exactly as their ancestors, indicating an inherent memory or an unknown means of communication, or both. In mythology, the butterfly is inherently a paradox, flitting between the visible and the invisible, life and death.
It is also a symbol of freedom and escape. Puleo focusses on concept, process, and materials rather than on final outcome, but there is certainly no shortage here of quality or craftsmanship.
Overall, the works span a wide range of mediums, materials and concepts. The artists, of native or mixed native heritage, represent a range of states, countries, tribes and cultures. Some highlights:
Josh Rios and Anthony Romero jointly explore identity migration with “Is Our Future a Thing of the Past?”– A collection of sci-fi related paraphernalia mixed with various cultural items; from book covers to photographs, to David Bowie posters and references to the Vietnam War.
These are presented as artifacts, arranged in a glass case, and accompanied by a digitized version of an 8mm film of high school students putting on a play inspired by Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
Over the glass case hang three drawings in frames of primary red, green and yellow. This seemingly disparate collection, when experienced together, examines alienation, social and political boundaries, stereotypes, and, especially, the transmutations of cultural identity. An educational but wordy pamphlet accompanies the display.
“Nopales Hibridos: An Imaginary World of Rascuache-Futurism” by Salvador Jimenez-Flores, a terra cotta and porcelain installation consisting of a large, colorful cactus-human hybrid totem of disturbing reality, displayed with a backdrop of various eagles in the form of the stereotypical American Eagle emblems, each with alternative “heads”.
The disembodied human heads of the cactus, most with irreverent or mocking expressions, seemingly draw life and strength from the resilient cactus itself.
Several pieces of the exhibit fall into the Rasquachismo style. Originally a negative and derogatory term describing impoverished artists with limited resources, Rascuache is now more accepted, describing pure survival and inventiveness of the underdog artist and as a reference to bicultural inspiration.
Ronny Quevedo, originally from Ecuador and now of New York, brings together construction debris and a deep personal connection to soccer in “The History of Rules and Measures #1.”
Utilizing a canvas of paper from gypsum board and inspired by both Mayan gaming fields and modern court markings, Quevedo creates a mysterious game with complex but unknown rules. The “court” creates a territory conscribed by unexplained boundaries and foul lines.
Guillermo Galindo, a visual and sound artist, composer and performer, collects discarded items found at the Mexican-American border. His “Flag” series consists of discarded and worn flags once used to indicate humanitarian water stops in the Calexico Desert.
In “Cartography of the Spirit” and “Following the Steps of the Lost Child” he applies symbols and notation in the graphic style of avant-garde composers like John Cage or Leon Schidlowsky, creating something like a coded map or journal.
Francisco Souto, an art professor at University of Nebraska, Lincoln, is represented by a series of delicate graphite drawings of quintessentially mid-west landscape views, boldly underscored with bright bands of color. The scenes seem as if viewed over the dashboard of a car, possibly a child’s first image of a new home.
Truman Lowe is a sculptor and former curator at the National Museum of the American Indian. He works primarily with scavenged wood from nature. His sculpture, “Waterfall,” is several fine strips of pine flowing from high on the wall, stopping cold on the concrete floor.
Some of the art in this show directly references the historic plight of the Native American Indian, such as the quilt work of Gina Adams and the installations and fabric works of Natalie Ball.
“Its Honor is Hereby Pledged” by Adams, consists of five huge vintage quilts hanging from the ceiling, onto which Adams has added her own fabric letters, text from several treaties between the US Government and various tribes.
Ball’s “Battlefield Medicine Flags” and “June 12 & 13, 1872” in similar fashion remind us of specific events and solidifies trespasses.
Nathan Young’s “Hatkiraar/STUTTER” is a most intriguing performance. One entire gallery is devoted to his sound sculpture. The gallery is empty save for a bit of electronic equipment and some speakers. The base recording is of two Pawnee elders speaking. For the performance, the artist adds vocal meanderings and accompaniments over the recording.
The live performance, with the artist accompanying the recording, was much more potent and moving. He “sings,” drones, hums, and slowly moves around, touching the floor at times. The elders speak in their native language, but a translation pamphlet is provided.
Jeffrey Gibson’s “Like a Hammer” is a performance/ Installation consisting of a six- minute video featuring the artist donning a ceremonial robe, performing what appears to be a sacred dance in which he beats a drum, seemingly entering a trance and writing various phrases on a large paper backdrop.
During his dance, the robe he wears teeters between burden and accoutrement. The robe, which in the gallery hangs like crucifix from wooded poles over the drum and opposite the video screen, is a complex collection of weaving, beadwork and hundreds of jangles that during the dance make a mesmerizing chinking sound.
In addition to this show, a satellite exhibit by photographer/artist Mark Menjivar is on display at El Museo Latino, on South 25th street. The show, “Stations”, is fourteen 8 x 10 color photographs of a historical “memory event”.
The photos depict altars created by the community to commemorate their flight from violence and subsequent harsh journey back to repatriation in 1989. The photography is strictly journalistic, and the “art” is found in the elaborate and poignant altars made by the people.
Although written reference is made to current specific controversies of border walls, oil pipelines, and identity politics, these influences, as important as they may be, are not blatantly obvious or forced.
There is much more than can be covered here, and the variety and depth is both daunting and exciting. A show to be experienced fully and perhaps more than once, which often happens with the best, most demanding exhibits.
Make sure you block some time to go through and watch the video pieces. You might feel a little claustrophobic at times, and some of the art seems to compete due to proximity or placement. Also, be careful where you step, as a few works are partially or fully on the floor.
Inspired by a similar migratory motif, Puleo and the chosen 37 share with us the deeply rooted and complex values of their ancestry and heritage. Using traditional materials and processes, modern technology and alternative mediums, curator and artist combine nature and art to mark a singular path in Monarchs.
Monarchs: Brown and Native Contemporary Artists in the Path of the Butterfly continues until Feb. 24 at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, 724 S 12th St, Omaha, NE. For details and gallery hours, go to bemiscenter.org.