Mexico City

Rubén Ortiz Torres

Rubén Ortiz Torres looks for staples of national identity in foreign settings: a puny Statue of Liberty in a Guatemalan public school becomes a caricature of “liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Guatemalan Liberty/Liberatad Chapina, 1995); two young Latinos at a Halloween party on Hollywood Boulevard pose as the “miscast” brown versions of horror-movie villains (Dios de la Guerra/Wargod, 1991); while two suburban blond kids wave at us from their taco-shaped cart in a parade (California Taco, 1995). Ortiz’s photographic series “The House of Mirrors,” 1990– , presents a cultural carnival of monuments, nightclubs, car shows, union demonstrations, fast-food joints, and parades. Whether working in the north, the south, or on the border between the US and Mexico, Ortiz captures manifestations of Latino and American culture metamorphosing from one into the other, yielding a mix that is equal parts authenticity and displacement. In keeping with their surreal iconoclasm, these self-styled, yet completely documentary photographs exchange the “seriousness” of black and white photography for ultra-high-key color. Saturated to the point of offense, they refuse to sentimentalize as “border issues.”

Ortiz was raised in Mexico City—where the pre-Colombian, the European, and the modern still compete to define the city and its inhabitants. Currently a resident of Los Angeles’ non-melting-pot, he understands that cultural identities are no longer exclusively safeguarded within traditional paradigms—as indigenous customs are challenged by Hollywood, the World Wide Web, and satellite TV—but are also preserved through the mutations that result when “invading” symbols are inflected by the racial, economic, and political realities of each place. Ortiz’s work documents an aggressive cross-pollination that renders cultural identity a comedy of errors—the unforeseen result of naturalizing extraneous symbols by tweaking their meaning. Pepsi and Coca-Cola become holy water in the already hybrid religion of Guatemalan Indians, while their saints are clothed in US military gear (Sargento Machimón, 1995). Mission Revival/ Colonial Californiano, 1995, introduces us to the “centuries old” annual fiesta in Santa Barbara, California in which white suburbanites dress as Spanish majas and conquistadors, cowboys, American Indians, mariachis, and Frida Kahlos—evoking a hodgepodge of colonialist fables.

Ortiz neither condemns nor celebrates entire cultures; instead, he emphasizes individuals molding and being molded by their milieu, their idiosyncrasies blurring and extending cultural domains as their transgressions are assimilated. Even unpopulated vignettes—for instance the space-age taco joint in Tacos Ovni/NASA Tacos, 1993, or the Mexican-morphic restaurant in Sombrero Tower, 1994—suggest the eccentric visions of their creators. Read within the discourse of portraiture, Ortiz’s “models” are aggressively stripped of the existential “interiority” that permeates so much artistic portrait photography. Their exuberance makes them vulnerable to our responses: thus the pseudo-Zapatista Chicano in Zapata Vive (Zapata lives, 1995), striving to glorify an idealized “national culture,” comes off as silly, and the Mexican Beatles-impersonators in I am the “Morsa”/Magical Mexican Tour, 1995, as absurd. Staged against the cool civility of the white gallery space, the realm Ortiz captures resonates with humor and strangeness. But perhaps such fun relies, in turn on the estrangement of sophisticated art audiences from the real world—which some of us aspire to critique. If there’s a joke here, it might be on us, too.

Yishai Jusidman