Wilmington, where Mario Ybarra, Jr. grew up, is in some ways the ultimate Southern California paradox -- it's on the water, but there's no beach. Just as his hometown does, Ybarra combines things in unexpected ways. He's a successful artist with a major international reputation, but his latest show, The Tío Collection at the Contemporary Arts Forum in Santa Barbara, riffs on childhood memories rather than high-culture aesthetics. It fills the gallery space with artifacts that Ybarra discovered in the homes of his uncles instead of objects that he created in his studio. By taking things that were once private and exhibiting them in a gallery -- complete with display plinths, vitrines, wall texts, and labels -- Ybarra's Tío Collection establishes a beachhead of art world legitimacy along the closed-off, working waterfront of blue-collar Wilmington culture.
When Contemporary Arts Forum curator Miki Garcia offered Ybarra a chance to create a big show in the organization's main space on the second floor of the Paseo Nuevo in downtown Santa Barbara, Ybarra saw it as a chance to apply some pressure on his family, many of whom, he told me, are "serious collectors of stuff." "They didn't want to let go of anything at first," he said, "but then I explained to them that it was for this important show, and that the things I was borrowing would be labeled and treated as art, and that idea began to soften them. 'So,' they kept asking me, 'are you saying that my stuff will be in a museum?' and I said 'Yeah, that's right, in a real museum.'"
The installation, which takes up three full rooms, includes a wide variety of objects in equally far-ranging states of repair. Some, like the colorful shirts that hang near the entrance, are relatively unmarked by their passage through the closets of Ybarra's uncles, while others, like the Black Widow killing stick of Tío Claudio, Ybarra's father's older brother, are loaded with the marks and scratches of years of hard use. Ybarra devotes one entire wall to his own collection of toys -- plastic Transformers and superhero figurines, all of them carefully preserved by the artist, who freely admits that, "some are worn because I used to play with them."
While the practice of introducing "ready-made" objects into the gallery space is as old as Marcel Duchamp's notorious urinal, the way that Mario Ybarra, Jr. presents and connects to his Tío Collection stands at a distinct distance and angle to more familiar artistic practices of appropriation and re-contextualization. Unlike an artist such as Duchamp -- who may have admired snow shovels, bottle racks, and urinals, but who was not known for telling family stories about them -- Ybarra selects only those things that can serve as points of departure for anecdotes about significant moments in his life. The wall of jigsaw puzzles that stands opposite the entrance to the main room bears witness to the long and challenging process of rehabilitation that Tío George went through after a serious car accident left him partially paralyzed at age 18. "George was required to do these puzzles as physical therapy," Ybarra told me, "and through the puzzles he was able to get back the use of his hands, and in a way, of his mind. He went on to become the first one in our family to graduate college, getting his degree in engineering from Cal State Long Beach."
"I can remember one very long car trip we took as a family, a big caravan of us in separate cars, and I was with one of my uncles in an old VW bus at the back of the pack," Ybarra went on to say. "The VW bus broke down, but this was before cell phones or anything, so no one up ahead noticed that we were gone until they were far away. My uncle and I spent the night on the side of the 5 freeway, waiting until morning for help to come. Every one of these pieces has a story like that, some almost tearjerker element, at least for me." In front of the wall of jigsaw puzzles stands a classic California-style oil drum barbecue grill. This belonged to Tío Jaime, and Ybarra's art students have decorated it as a memorial to Jaime's now deceased dog Cisco. The grill also carries a stern warning that, unless you have brought some food to share, keep your hands off the meat! It's this constant criss-crossing of sentimentality and humor, practicality and frivolity, that gives the Tío Collection its distinctive bittersweet tone, a tone that captures perfectly the artist's own dry wit about his life.
Talking about what he wants to accomplish with the show, Ybarra, who was included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, emphasizes the way that the viewer responds to his work, saying "I hope that people leave the gallery and go back into their homes and the homes of their relatives with new eyes for what counts as art. I want people to see where the family is creating culture on the level of style, even when that culture does not aspire to be understood as high art." The artist's father, Mario Ybarra, Sr., did however aspire to create art, and in such deft and satirical works as Funny Face Ybarra, a bright blue sculpture from 2005 that's made out of a railroad spike and some discarded nuts and bolts, Ybarra, Sr. strikes a note that will be familiar to those who know the history of Latino art in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s.
And it's through these subterranean connections to a more overtly political period that the philosophy and agenda underlying Ybarra, Jr.'s warm and friendly persona reassert themselves. Despite having "made it," the artist remains balanced on a precarious point somewhere between the solid ground of success and the sea of solidarity with ordinary people leading less privileged and aestheticized lives. As he told me, "I still wake up sometimes at 3 or 4 in the morning wondering 'why?' My style is all I really have--a combination of looseness and attitude that allows me to make things work with whatever I have to hand. You know, 'it is what it is!' Like that. I get the laid back thing from growing up near the water, but then there's this side of me that identifies with the port, and that knows about the idealism of organized labor and the struggles of the unions, so I am still made of both."
As a parting gesture, I ask Ybarra how it feels to be in Santa Barbara, a place that seems on the surface to be quite far from the Wilmington he has just described. "It feels great," he tells me, "because you see I have a tío here in Santa Barbara, and I have some beautiful memories of coming up here with my father, driving the 101 in his old red Datsun 280Z, so even this place is a part of one of my stories too."
The Tío Collection is on view at the Contemporary Arts Forum through September 30.