Ithaca

Revelaciones

Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art

These site-specific works by eight Hispanic artists addressed the unstable definition of this ethnic group in the U.S. and within institutions of “high” culture. “Revelaciones/Revelations: Hispanic Art of Evanescence” reflected critically on the museum in the expected way, but also proved extremely volatile, catalyzing events at this well-heeled campus that escaped the confines of the institution. Its one lasting artifact, the stunning catalogue, cannot capture these critical confrontations.

The seven-foot black walls of Daniel Martinez’s The Castle is Burning (all works 1993) transformed the center of the spacious Cornell quadrangle into intimidating corridors. This strategic remapping of public space was striking in itself, but the series of important events it precipitated could have been a spoof on the ramifications of public art. In addition to protests in the style of those surrounding Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, racist graffiti and vandalism ultimately provoked a four-day sit-in by Hispanic students demanding the reform of university hiring, recruitment, and curriculum policies. In contrast to these events, the subtle interventions of “Revelaciones” marked the continua along which struggle is activated.

In a more traditionally cathartic vein, Maria Brito’s Merely a Player consisted of a sturdy plywood cube that one entered to find a maze. Moving through the cramped and discontinuous space, the solitary visitor came upon masks waiting on shelves or floating in sinks, and small objects, such as a family portrait in which the artist replaced her own face with that of the Virgin. In this little house, discarding and resuming an identity seemed like yet another womanly chore; eerily, the space’s laboratory-like elements suggested that an individual can be distilled into a vestige of a face and a handful of dirt.

In Vanitas: Evidence, Ruin, and Regeneration, Amalia Mesa-Bains examined the museum’s stewardship of European and pre-Colombian art. That the museum’s notion of stewardship required the artist to glue down the many small objects used in the installation was the first evidence of conflicting agendas. In this piece, Mesa-Bains explored the memento mori quality of a work in the museum’s collection, a 17th-century Dutch painting entitled Still Life with Negro Boy, noting that the African slave is cast as a possession among other possessions. But as the artist herself pointed out, the museum willfully mislabeled the painting as Still Life with Portrait, attempting to mask her own critique.

Due to the pervasive tension between the artists and the university, I repeatedly mistook Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s statement that the university is a “bomb factory” to read that it is a “book factory.” Ortiz’s installation Explosive Ideas—Books and Bombs wired ticking time bombs to mountains of faded volumes. Freedom of expression, these dismal heaps suggested, requires the destruction, not protection, of the controversial books of twenty years ago—now evidence of faiths lost too recently even for nostalgia. Ortiz gracefully preempted one of his “Book Trial” performances to videotape the Hispanic students’ sit-in in the administration building, and this was shown on one of the monitors embedded in the book piles.

Outside the museum, echoing the forms of these buried books, was Rimer Cardillo’s work in the form of an indigenous Uruguayan burial mound, covered with spines of slate from New York State. That Cardillo’s quiet conflation of cultures should exist in the same space with the overt confrontation Martinez’s work provoked was emblematic of this show’s expansive interaction with the institution.

Laura U. Marks