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Subject to Display

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            Subject to Display by Jennifer A. González offers an analysis of the visual culture of “race” throughout the work of five contemporary artists who became well known during the 1990s. Over the past 20 years, artists James Luna, Fred Wilson, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Pepón Osorio, and Renée Green have had a profound effect on the practice and meaning of installation art in the United States. In Subject to Display, Jennifer González provides the first substantiated examination and evaluation of their contribution, connecting the history of race discourse to innovations in contemporary art. Race, according to González is a social discourse that has a visual history (González 3). The collection and display of artifacts, bodies, and images in museums and other sites is a primary mode by which a country narrates the story of its history and situates the cultures of its citizens in the present. The five installation artists from the United States are the protagonists of González’s work and they have all examined the practice of displaying people and their cultures by staging intricate and ornate dioramas or site-specific interventions in museums and galleries, generating powerful social analysis of the politics of space or power of display in locations that mimic the very spaces that they critique. These artist’s installations have not just contributed to the reshaping and transformation of contemporary art and museum culture, but they have also connected Native American, Latino, and African American subjects to the broader spectrum of race dominance, visual culture, and historical colonialism. From Luna’s museum installation of his body and belongings as “artifacts” and Wilson’s provocative juxtapositions of museum objects to Mesa-Bains’ symbolic home altars, Osorio’s condensed spaces (living rooms, bedrooms; barbershops, prison cells) and Green’s genealogies of cultural contact, the theoretical and critical undertakings of these artists illustrate how race discourse is rooted in a visual technology of display (2).

            As demonstrated by the way González attends to identity politics and nation/culture matters through the museum discourse, the methodology of the institution has remained central to prevailing arguments that are rooted in a structure and organization of knowledge that differentiates non-Western from Western culture and distinguishes Black Art from American Art. Gónzalez’s examination of installation art addresses the “raced” language and phrases for the aspect of “sitedness” that is part of museum ideology as she assumes a comprehensive interdisciplinary approach to her examination of the five mixed media artists. In spite of the fact that she connects Latina, African and Native-American subjects through the shared experience of W.E.B. DuBois’ “double-consciousness,” Gonzales’ objective is “not to perpetuate a simple use of race as an organizing device, but rather to demonstrate how the artists find ways to undermine race discourse and its colonialist logic, its systems of power, its discourse of visibility” (2, 4). “Double consciousness” is the belief that the African-American in the United States exists within two conflicting identities that cannot be completely joined together. DuBois explains that the first and most important component of the Black experience is the Black identity. The second most important component is the American identity, an identity into which Black people were born only as a result of the historical residues of slavery.   

            Gónzalez defines race as a “discursive formation” by using a range of concepts and terms from cultural studies and postcolonial theory, along with principles from the poststructuralist constitution of the subject (3). This approach makes use of a complex analytical development in an effort to straighten out and correct the more simplistic analyses that have persisted from the formative phase of multicultural identity politics that has frequently been studied and used as a supplement to feminist visual art scholarship. Gonzalez’s exploration of artists working in the 1980s and 1990s complies with a sense of an established period of “multicultural art,” yet the language used to describe it has changed.

            The discourse of identity politics and multiculturalism in the arts has become inseparable from the museum discourse. Chapter 3, “Amalia Mesa-Bains: Divine Allegories,” expresses Mesa-Bains’ different innovations on traditional Catholic iconography in her reproductions of libraries, harems, boudoirs, and gardens (122). For González, this creative reappropriation of traditional imagery contributes to a decolonial imaginary that “repositions the gendered body of the mestiza through a critical transformation of the politics of display” (162).

            Mesa-Bains has created a syncretic genre of what was historically a syncretic domestic practice. The tradition of Mexican domestic altars is rooted in the colonial history of Americas, as Indigenous womyn combined their own spiritual practices with European Catholic icons to create ofrendas or offerings in their homes to honor their ancestors. In reviving and changing the genre of “art-installation” as an act of anti-colonial cultural reclamation in recent decades, she integrates the personal and the political as well as fine art and folk traditions, both recognized by and challenging the art world through anti-racist and feminist installations. Mesa-Bains’ work both reclaims womyn as the first altar artists and recognizes womyn icons as the subject of the altars. Mesa-Bains suggests that such syncretic practices are constructed around two interrelated tropes, affirmation and resistance: affirmation of forms and rituals that have upheld US culture in hostile environments, such as the home altar tradition.  

            Mesa-Bains sees these reconfigured altars as reflective of a matriarchal and politicizing spirituality. This is not a totally private expression, but by remembering the precolonial history and ancestors as well as the present-day context, they become shared and public statements that can be used to historicize issues like migrant work.  

            One of the first and most significant new significations inscribed by Chicanas/os about their aesthetic creations can be found in the concept of rasquachismo. Mesa-Bains explains that rasquachismo is more than just an aesthetic style created for the sake of beauty (131). Rasquachismo is a very political concept because it allows Chicanas/os to oppose cultural assimilation while it allows them to promote self-respect and positive self-portrayal. In this case, rasquache aesthetic interventions and customizations cannot be disassociated from the economic, social, and political inequity and discrimination experienced in the borderlands. For Mesa-Baines, rasquachismo demands a deep understanding of the Chicana/o reality of history and social life that reveals itself not just in the aesthetic work of art production, but also in the interpretations of space. Rasquachismo’s social use and reappropriation of objects presupposes a definition of what is considered useful and beautiful.

            Nevertheless, Amalia Mesa-Bains does more than just validate rasquachismo. As González reflects, by blending two terms, Mexicana and doméstica (Mexican arts and crafts and household work), Mesa-Bains not only creates a new term, but more precisely, as González contends, Mesa-Bains creates a new signification, a new meaning about the conflictive space created by the intersection of race, gender, and class. She opens a new aesthetic space that recognizes the unique experience of gendered work and a racialized identity. Mesa-Bains creates a new self by naming it. As González contends, domesticana as a femelle rasquachismo “transforms ‘female’ space from its traditional isolation under patriarchy into a public representation of a lived experience of Mexican American women” (132). What the viewer/ reader experiences is many re-significations, where the mundanity of quotidian things is transformed. 

Take-away points

  • Chapter 4, “Pepón Osorio: No Limits,”
    • Analyzes Osorio’s efforts at uncovering the principles that structure spaces such as courtrooms, bedrooms, barbershops, living rooms, and prison cells.
    • Drawing from his immigrant experience as a Puerto Rican in New York, Osorio communicates to his audience the dislocation undergone by himself and other transplants to new cultures.
    • “To be ‘at home’ in the city is to be literate in the space of the city, to articulate a language of daily practice that is based on rhythms and regularities that form a routine” (165).
    • Osorio’s works are a reaction to effects of cultural displacement on Puerto Ricans living in and near New York City.

Osario experienced Displacement when he arrived in 1975 at the age of 22 from Sancture, Puerto Rico

Works Cited 

González, Jennifer A. Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2008. Print.