Nuclear Testing, Immigration Central to Powerful Art Exhibition

art culture center

Visitors to the Art and Culture Center’s opening reception of “Fractured Landscapes” last Saturday night must have thought they’d time-warped into the Downtown New York art scene circa 1981. Where else would one encounter an installation as avant-garde and alienating as Emanuel Tovar’s “Las Huellas del Vacio?”

Over the course of one full hour that evening, the installation—an assemblage of 1,000 pounds of coal arranged in a ceremonial circle, five diameters in length, on the gallery floor—was “activated” by performance artist Ana Mendez. Clad in black, Mendez walked barefoot atop the sooty substance with the patience of an actor in a Tarkovsky film, methodically spreading corn dough on her face and around the coals, and manipulating the yellow mush into figural molds.

Days later, I had trouble making it through even a 20-minute video clip from the performance, yet alone the entire 60, which is precisely the point: The piece is a rigorous commentary on the sweat inequity of a caste system that reduces people to menial labor. Even un-activated, as when I visited on Tuesday, “Las Huellas del Vacio” stirs emotions, its sheer size a condemnation of rampant consumption of fossil fuels—at once the detritus of labor, of exploitation, of environmental hazard. If it works, it’ll make you want to drop everything, join Greenpeace and become a Marxist.

“Las Huellas del Vacio” is the literal centerpiece of “Fractured Landscapes,” the Art and Culture Center’s observant pairing of two artists with a lot in common. Tovar and Cara Despain both work in large, ambitious scales, explore related themes through multiple mediums, and deal in issues of existential importance.

For Tovar, who was raised and still lives in Guadalajara, Mexico, the immigrant experience is central to his suite of works here. The highly personal “Homemaker” consists of a series of brown envelopes with faded postmarks, which housed, in the 1970s, the correspondence and financial assistance from his grandfather, then working in Los Angeles to provide for Emanuel’s parents in Mexico.

Mirroring the geometric, ritualistic presentation of “Las Huellas del Vacio,” “El Sol de la Bestia” features charred wood arranged in a large circle on a gallery wall. Tovar retrieved these materials from campfires along the route of the network of freight trains known as “The Beast” that delivered many migrants to the U.S. from Mexico. The crude tactility of these jagged stumps, jutting toward the spectator like fingers, makes for a visceral reminder of the countless humans that, indeed, sacrificed life and limb to be stowaways on this unfriendly means of transport.

Despain’s portion of the show, while lighter in color than Tovar’s inky palette, addresses topics no less urgent: the damaging history of bomb testing in her native Southwest, within the context of interstellar manifest destiny. The Utahan’s central contribution is “As Above, So Below,” a series of gradated white monoliths topped with plaster reliefs of U.S. and Soviet testing grounds inspired by Google satellite imagery (shown below). Each stunted tower represents a different event and location—the Trinity Test Site in New Mexico, the Tsar Bomba detonated over a Russian archipelago—and the physical indentations, tracks and pockmarks rendered fastidiously by Despain serve as indelible imprints of man’s destructive condition.

There is an element of irony and anachronism to Despain’s oeuvre that creates a sense of subversive nostalgia. In an era of digital ease, she favors mid-century analog mediums. “Hindsight” is a series of eight 35mm NASA images of the moon in various lunar phases that is played on a vintage slide projector; it’s not always turned on, and when it is, you hear the lumbering hum and click of the machine, and you feel like you’re sitting in on a prep session for “The Right Stuff.” “Uranium!” is a neon sign that practically shouts the title word, loudly clicking on and off, advertising the exciting potential of its bomb-making material as if it were an all-night diner.

And “On the Record” features audio interviews Despain conducted with people who lived through, and around, the nuclear and atomic tests of the Cold War. As the title alludes, the interviews were pressed onto vinyl. To hear them, attendees have to turn on a portable record player and drop the needle on the 10-inch record themselves. It’s worth that participatory extra step: Side A begins with a frighteningly cheerful jingle to “Duck and Cover!” in four-part harmony; later in the disc, Despain’s subject laments the “duplicity” of a U.S. government that “essentially bombed Utah.”

Finally, Despain’s “Backdrop,” in which the title word is emblazoned across an enlarged photograph the artist shot in Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border, was destined to become a photo op, as images from the opening reception bear out. But the image is no step-and-repeat, of course: It’s a meta  acknowledgment that this unspoiled landscape, favored by John Ford among many other directors of ‘50s oaters, hardly represented the bombed-out reality of the surrounding desert. Prettified for the camera, it was more of a mirage—a backdrop.

Despain’s intent is to peel back that façade and immortalize a shameful aspect of American history. You may end up wryly smiling through much of it, but its memories and implications are unshakeable.

“Fractured Landscapes” runs through May 16 at Art and Culture Center, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood. Admission is $7 general and $4 students and seniors. For information, call 954/921-3274 or visit artandculturecenter.org.


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