London

Juan Dávila

Chisenhale Gallery

A vast patchwork of images varying in size, means of execution, and culture of origin, this exhibition included paintings, newsprint, collage, textiles, and laser prints interspersed with various kitschy objects. The ensemble carpeted most of the gallery’s considerable space, leaving only a narrow walkway around the edge. As if to exacerbate this very direct physical decentering, each spectator was provided with red/green 3-D specs through which to make some sense of the bicolored frieze running round the bottom of the walls, and of the texts printed on the floor pieces.

In its overall form the installation resembled an AIDS quilt, but it could also be described as a cultural map, a political inquiry, a collection of popular fables, and a street artist’s pitch. Everywhere, of course, there were familiar images. Signature artistic styles, figures of historical or political importance, and characters from fiction were all thrown into a narrative that mixed the pretensions of high art, media slickness, and the salutary bluntness of the pornographic. Dávila played with the “canon,” borrowing from all and sundry. Identity, for him, seems to be something like the sum of differing and sometimes conflicting voices of mythic or historical import through which he speaks at various points.

The figure portrayed here is Juanita Laguna, the subject of a series of paintings by Argentinean artist Antonio Berni in which he was already a fiction, realizing dreams of escape from the shanty towns of Buenos Aires. In Dávila’s hands, he is transported across frontiers, given new nationalities, new names, new genders. Once in England, he remains essentially homeless, casting an ironic eye upon a culture that, despite its supposed centrality, offers myriad ways in which to reflect meaning for and from the margins. It comes as no surprise to see Dávila choosing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a way into Britain: the civilized, urbane screen masking a brutal, if perhaps more honest, internal make-up.

The question for Dávila appears to be less one of basic identity than one of agency and expression. In his catalogue essay, Guy Brett suggests that the key to Dávila’s work might be “as”: “Juanito Laguna as a taxi-boy as a mother as the Andean inhabitant. . . . ” Fortunately, the complexity of Dávila’s purpose is underscored rather than disguised by the excess of such masquerades.

Michael Archer