Justin Favela’s “Gypsy Rose Piñata” is a cultural appropriation, or a low rider apparition, of an East Los Angeles icon that gave the Chicano movement stylish wheels. The life-sized paper and cardboard sculpture at “The High Art of Riding Low: Ranflas, Corazón e Inspiración” at the Petersen Automotive Museum is high art driving with low art riding shotgun, or vice versa. Or you can think of it as an extended family. Favela shows how high and low art are related; they may not be twins, but they are cousins.
Born and still based in Las Vegas, Favela infuses his art with his Guatemalan-Mexican birthright. By using the simple representation of a celebration object — the piñata — in a region where authentic cultural identity is too often 86’d in the desert, buried eight miles out and six feet deep, his social messages have weight while appearing as non-threatening.
“You gotta make this shit real,” says Favela, 30, with earnest jest. When still in his 20s he began responding to his personal expectations of being a Latino artist. His impulse to speak to cultural reference didn’t come from emulating a movement, but finding his own way in an area where there is no legacy of Chicano Art. “When I was in school at [University of Nevada, Las Vegas], I started thinking about my identity as a Latino — and about making my art about my identity,” Favela said in an earlier interview “It’s a decision I just dove into headfirst.”
He selected the piñata as a jumping off point, a signifier of culture, to form basic references. “Donkey Piñata,” a burro exhausted from burden, was an early exploration that is now dangling in “Gracias, Gracias, Thank You, Thank You,” his solo show at Palos Verdes Art Center, which closes July 9. An early signature piece, “Untitled (Big Bird),” is the avian TV character built to scale, installed by being laid out on the floor like discarded paper feathers, as if innocence was whacked outside a casino. (One can also draw parallels between the piece and the state of public broadcasting if the move to pull federal funding from its coffers is okay’ed.)
In 2015, Favela traveled to Overton, Nevada, and had a party. He strung lights across Michael Heizer's “Double Negative” while family and friends gathered for a picnic. An actual piñata was also hoisted in the shallow end of the land art masterpiece. The daylong event re-contextualized Basin and Range Province as his backyard.
A current work up at the Denver Art Museum is “Fridalandia,” an installation for “Mi Tierra” (on view through October 22). It recreates Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul patio garden, as art directed in the movie “Frida” (2002). Favela’s creation allows museum guests to step in a cinematic version of Kahlo’s world, but made of paper.
His paper and cardboard also comments on the roadside experience by bootlegging signage. “ESTARDAS” is the ethnic version of the Stardust casino sign, an artifact of the Strip, spelled out in a phonetic pronunciation of the word stardust, es-tar-das, as he heard relatives say it.
At The Cosmopolitan’s P3 Studio, which once held artist residencies, Favela hosted “Piñatatopia,” a walk-in workshop where he encouraged visitors to draw what they considered the Latino, Mexican-American or Chicano experience. Of course, there were limes for margaritas and Day of the Dead imagery. I drew a chancla, a single sandal, the provisional disciplinary tool of grandmothers always hung by a nail in a location with high visibility. It hangs in my studio. Yet, just as important to the artist were the drawings of a Windex bottle, a bucket of cement with rebar sticking out, a representation of what he considers real everyday experience.
Favela selected these forms to be part of a temporary installation at P3 Studio without surfeit shallowness. In the hands of another artist it would crash as a pile of kitsch. But the work comes from intimate socialization and conversations about shared experiences, and the intent to take back identifiable imagery; even objects that become cultural clichés are given stable context. That is the very nature of pop art, and his portfolio of paper sculptures are whimsical commentary on cultural identity without hammering a social message. Like a comedian-satirist breaking the fourth wall, Favela sends a direct aside to a viewer, his audience, to say, “Being a brown artist is a built-in political gesture.”
Those conversations have been expanded, often over tacos, on his podcast, Latinos Who Lunch, which began as frequent tête-à-têtes with Emmanuel Ortega, an art historian (who as of this week successfully defended his PhD). On the podcast, Favela, also known as FavyFav, and Ortega, now Dr. Babelito, ramble, reflect, and sometimes mock art, culture and identity politics. The chat on the show is a swirl of ideas and jokes broken up by Favela’s laugh, a throaty howl punctuated with a single hand clap, or Ortega’s rhythmic chortle that is two parts giggle and one part titter. The pod-talk covers food and culture with locals, or sometimes held at exotic locations, like RuPaul's DragCon, or with guest artists, like Ramiro Gomez.
When I first met Favela, I joked he was a one-person Chicano Art movement in Las Vegas. It may not have been fair to do that to him, but it turned out to be an entry point in different ways. When he began to journey out of state for exhibitions and residencies, he was often introduced as a Chicano Artist by curators. And though at first he did not make it a strategy to riff on the tradition of Chicano Art, he has done better than many who try. By instinct he tapped into a larger legacy by looking back in history, just as muralist Diego Rivera referred to indigenous art, as documented in journals seen in “Picasso and Rivera: Conversations Across Time” at LACMA; or the first wave of Chicano Artists looking back to social messages in works from Mexico’s early to mid-twentieth century muralists. In one episode of his podcast, he admitted the use of piñata as a form “was a gimmick,” and then he recalls realizing “Oh my God, I’m making work for white people,” which is too self-critical. His use of craft materials of paper and glue avoid being folk art due to his embedded meaning, while reminding us the Latino experience spans the entire West. Favela’s re-appropriation with paper as a form of cultural archaeology is pop art primitivism kept real.
Top Image: Justin Favela’s “Gypsy Rose Piñata" at “The High Art of Riding Low: Ranflas, Corazon E Inspiracion,” an exhibition at Petersen Automotive Museum | Photo courtesy Petersen Automotive Museum