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Lowriders, Aliens and Cultural Hybridity in the Work of Rubén Ortiz-Torres

This is produced in partnership with Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.

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This fall and winter, the Getty’s ambitious Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative sprawls across dozens of Southern California institutions, presenting a broad range of exhibitions on Latin American and Latino Art in Los Angeles. It is widely considered to be a watershed cultural moment, highlighting often-overlooked artists and movements who are being finally given institutional due. Six years ago, however, a single exhibition included in the inaugural LA-focused Pacific Standard Time explored many of the same themes that are now being considered on a much larger scale. “MEX/LA: “Mexican” Modernism(s) in Los Angeles, 1930-1985” at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach could be considered a precursor to PST:LA/LA, tracing the legacy of Mexican artists like David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco in LA through the Chicano Art Movement of the 60s, and beyond.

“MEX/LA…is a show that pretends to tell an L.A. history or a Mexican history that has not often been told as either, and yet it is both and it is important,” exhibition curator and artist Rubén Ortiz-Torres writes in his catalogue essay, “Does L.A. stand for Los Angeles or Latin America?,” a question that could just as easily apply to the current PST:LA/LA series. “Like any other history it is partially true and forgets something else. It is a fragmented and contradictory one with different points of view that often clash and differ but are necessary pieces of an incomplete puzzle…It is a show about conflict, misinterpretation, appropriation, fascination, resilience, and more.”

Just as the show he curated can be seen as harboring the seeds of the larger PST:LA/LA project, through his own work over the past three decades in sculpture, video, installation, photography, and more, Ortiz-Torres has grappled with and celebrated themes of hybridity, identity and cultural transmission that weave through many of the exhibitions now on view.

“He’s an important voice at the intersection, not only of transplanetary, but transnational borders,” says Robert Hernandez, who included Ortiz-Torres’ work in “Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas,” an exhibition he co-curated at UC Riverside. “He was at the forefront of that kind of hemispheric dialogue, not just bi-national between Mexico and the US, but in relation to Americas in the whole.”

Born in Mexico City in 1964, he moved to Southern California in about 1990, and this dual identity as a Mexican, but also as a Mexican-American, is a focal point in his work.  (Even before moving North, he had an affinity for the US national pastime as he notes in his bio: “After giving up the dream of playing baseball in the major leagues he decided to study art,” and he can often be seen wearing a Dodgers jersey and ubiquitous L.A.-baseball hat).

See Rubén Ortiz-Torres' "La Zamba del Chevy" in action. This video comes courtesy of L.A. Freewaves and was produced in 2002 for "Inter-State: Video on the Go," which follows three other artists in L.A. 

His parents were fairly well-known folk musicians, but living in the dense urban metropolis of Mexico City, he had a hard time connecting to their brand of indigenism, gravitating more to gritty punk rock, which still surfaces in his work. Still, he included a remix of a popular song written by his father, “La Zamba del Che” written in 1967 after the death of Che Guevara, in his 2000 work “La Zamba del Chevy,” which picks up on the irony of Guevara’s love for the archetypal American automobile.

As a young artist in the 80s, Ortiz-Torres was never content to stick with one style, his work changing so rapidly that curators were often left befuddled.

“My work has always been very eclectic,” he notes. “They would come to my studio and say, ‘Let's do a show but let's see how your work evolves.’ So we had a meeting six months after that, and they said, “But the work is different, we like the old work.’ It's like, ‘Well now I’m doing this.’”

Ortiz-Torres was a peer of several of the artists who would go on to international recognition in the 90s like Gabriel Orozco, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Carlos Amorales, and Gabriel Kuri (he was actually high school classmates with Orozco), however, he left for LA just as Mexico’s contemporary art scene was exploding.

“Through an accident of destiny I met the filmmaker Catherine Hardwicke [director of “Twilight”],” he recalls. “She says, ‘come to Los Angeles, go to CalArts.’”

After applying, Ortiz-Torres was accepted to CalArts but lacked the funds to pay for tuition, which he solved by landing a grant to cover expenses.

“Once I got the grant they said, ‘You can go to New York or Chicago or wherever,’ but for me, it was like a reality check. The things I was dealing with in Mexico City would make sense in LA somehow,” he says. “Also if everything goes bad I can go to Tijuana in a couple of hours.”

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The things he was dealing with were directly related to the hybridity, mutability and messiness of culture, of how to convey the breadth of the Mexican experience without essentializing it.

“What I saw as this big conflict for Mexican culture at large was how can you be modern and contemporary and yet negotiate with local and specific cultural traditions?” he says. “In the history of Mexican Art, what you really see is this schizophrenic pendulum of conflict. You either have nationalism, like Rivera, the Mexican School, where you have to look at our indigenous cultures, and resist European cultural colonialism, or the rejection of that nationalism, which says we're part of the rest of the world, we're part of the international community.”

In Los Angeles, he found an ideal expression of this creative conflict in the quintessentially SoCal phenomenon of the customized Lowrider car show. 

Rubén Ortiz-Torres. Alien Toy (La Ranfla Cósmica), 1997 | Collection of Tom Patchett, courtesy of Track 16, Los Angeles
Rubén Ortiz-Torres. Alien Toy (La Ranfla Cósmica), 1997 | Collection of Tom Patchett, courtesy of Track 16, Los Angeles

“The car show is obviously modernistic, but at the same time, it has all this other stuff. At CalArts, they kept talking about multiculturalism, as this theoretical thing, and about interdisciplinarity, and I thought, ‘What the hell are these things? Are they sculptures, are they performances? The painting is fantastic.’” He recalls. “It was dangerous. You would go to the car shows and there would be shootings. One kid got stabbed with a trophy.”

Fittingly, the car shows in L.A. were not Ortiz-Torres’ first experience with Lowrider culture. As a child, he had gone to Michoacan with his grandfather to celebrate Christmas, and it was there that he saw his first Lowrider, a Southern California export presumably driven down by a Mexican-American to Mexico.

He began making works based on Lowrider customization, the most well-known of which is “Alien Toy” (1997), a border patrol truck that breaks apart and mutates into a dancing robot. As with many of his car creations, this was a collaboration with Salvador Muñoz, a self-taught Lowrider artist who regularly competes in car shows. “He’s originally from Jalisco, so he has kind of an outsider interpretation of Lowriders, which is itself an interpretation of hot rod car culture, which is already an outsider interpretation of cars,” Ortiz-Torres notes.

Alien Toy is currently on view in “Mundos Alternos,” dancing for the first time in many years at the opening. “Rubén's work has historically been rife with humor and parody,” says Hernandez, the show’s co-curator. “One way he comments on our social reality is through the guise of the alien. Himself, a resident alien, riffing on that in a number of ways, juxtaposing literal green men with INS raids.”

In addition to the inclusion of his own work in PST:LA/LA, Ortiz-Torres also co-curated “How to Read El Pato Pascual: Disney’s Latin America and Latin America’s Disney” on view at the MAK Center and the Luckman Fine Arts Complex. Taking its title from “How to Read Donald Duck,” a 1971 Chilean book that applies a Marxist critique to Disney’s exportation of American culture, the two-venue exhibition features artists throughout the Americas who reflect this critique with irony and humor. Several works meld familiar images of Disney characters like Mickey Mouse with figures of Aztec or Mayan deities. For Ortiz-Torres, this relationship has a special significance here in California, Disney’s home. “The conflict that we pay a lot of attention to is between pre-Columbian culture, indigenisms, and modernisms, which in California has always existed. The Annenbergs and other collectors in California collected both at the same time.”

Donald Duck by Sergio Allevato and Mickey by Dr. Lakra
"Donald Duck" by Sergio Allevato (Courtesy of Collection Gilberto Chateaubriand MAM RJ) and "Mickey" by Dr. Lakra (Courtesy of Vanessa Branson ).

Ortiz-Torres’ most recent work is on view in “White Washed America,” at Royale Projects in downtown L.A. Featuring glistening, abstract paintings made with urethane and metallic paints, the show brings together several themes that he has explored over the years: car culture, punk rock, minimalism and American identity — in both the national and hemispheric sense. “Black Flag” (2014), comprised of four shiny, black rectangular panels — two hung and two leaning against the wall — succinctly captures it all, referencing both the L.A. punk band’s iconic logo designed by Raymond Pettibon, as well as the “Finish Fetish” school of mid-century California minimalism. “El Grito (The Scream)” (2014) is part painting, part performance, a radiant orange work that changes color once the viewer screams at it. Incorporating thermochromatic paint and unseen electronics, it is a technological mutation of El Grito, the Mexican cry of Independence.

Ruben Ortiz-Torres. Black Flag, 2014 | Courtesy of Royale Projects
Rubén Ortiz-Torres. Black Flag, 2014 | Courtesy of Royale Projects
Ruben Ortiz-Torres. White Washed America (America blanqueada), 2014 | Courtesy of Royale Projects
Rubén Ortiz-Torres. A detail of "White Washed America (America blanqueada)," 2014 | Courtesy of Royale Projects

“Plata o Plomo (Silver or Lead)” (2017), is an expressionistic, metallic composition inspired by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s phrase outlining the two ways to accomplish your goals:  “Plata o Plomo,” bullets or bribery. The work takes on a grim significance considering the U.S.’s current situation of overwhelming violence and corruption.

One of the only representational works in the show, “White Washed America” (2014) recreates “América Tropical,” a 1932 mural by famed Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros commissioned for Olvera Street in downtown LA. Depicting a crucified indigenous peasant, the controversial work was whitewashed shortly after completion, only recently being uncovered and restored. Ortiz-Torres’ version is rendered in chromaluscent pearl paint, a glowing, ghostly image that one must struggle to ascertain. He excavates this important artifact, only to obscure it again beneath additional cultural and artistic layers. In many ways, Ortiz-Torres is not interested in answering the question, “What is Latin American or Latino Art?”, but in further complicating the conversation.

“It seems that for us in America, we don't really know how to locate ourselves, especially when it comes to constructing identity,” he explains. “This is something that unifies the whole continent. Even Jackson Pollock, where is he gonna draw from, Native American sand paintings or the history of Western art? He doesn't know. It’s a real cultural dilemma. For Frank Lloyd Wright too. ‘Do I refer to the Greeks or the Mayans? At some point, he realizes they are both are valid, that the Greeks are not necessarily the default. They might be as alien to him as the Mayans.”

Ruben Ortiz-Torres. Shopper Hopper, 2016 and El grito (The Scream), 2014 | Courtesy of Royale Projects
Rubén Ortiz-Torres. Shopper Hopper, 2016 and El grito (The Scream), 2014 | Courtesy of Royale Projects

Top Image: Rubén Ortiz-Torres. La jaula de oro (Gilded Cage), 2017 | Courtesy of Royale Projects.

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