William Cordova


The title of William Cordova’s exhibition at ThreeWalls, “the house that frank lloyd wright built for atahualpa, fred hampton y mark clark,” was the first clue that I might lack the knowledge necessary to recognize the artist’s varied references. Wright I got, but Atahualpa? Fred Hampton and Mark Clark sounded familiar—but maybe too familiar: They could be any Americans, and my grasp of US history is weak. Further poking around Cordova’s careful arrangement of small found-object sculptures and minimal collages unearthed further doubts: Tupac Shakur is a dead rapper, check, but Tupac Amaru? Who were Francisco Chichima and Bobby L. Rush? What happened at 2337 West Monroe on December 4, 1969, or at Vilcabamba in 1603?

These and other allusions appear cryptically in the individual works’ titles, which are noted on a checklist that also details with great specificity materials both exotic and banal, from a Peruvian hyacinth feather to an eyeglass lens, Jatoba wood to a train map for the Port St. Lucie–West Palm Beach route. The works themselves are as compelling as objects made from picked-over trash can be, but the real interest of Cordova’s installation resides less in how deftly he arranges candy-bar wrappers, reclaimed bricks, and old book covers than in how shrewdly he makes them do symbolic work that, frustratingly, can’t fully be grasped.

Consider the first object in the exhibition, untitled (07.12.69), 2007–2008, a framed pho- tograph of the front page of a newspaper, greatly reduced, with a small gold foil appliqué. It hardly matters that the collage fragment obscures part of an article—the picture hangs so high on the wall as to be illegible. It’s impossible to tell what was reported in the news that day, though it must have been important. Elsewhere, untitled (oradores, oradores, oradores), 2007–2008, a column of two thousand stacked journals, topped by four Peruvian gourds, stands neatly bundled and almost indecipherable—almost, because the bold red and black of the folded papers read abstractly but loudly, especially since these are Black Panther tabloids, as the materials list makes clear. Across the gallery, two nearly identical collages, each made of a purple and a black sheet taped one above the other, bear the subtlest of repoussé inscriptions, MANUEL RAMOS and JOSE ‘PANCHO’ LIND, respectively—names that mean nothing to me and were indecipherable without help from the works’ titles.

What did register immediately—I’m an art historian, not an Afro-Peruvian scholar—was the reference to Mark Rothko and Color Field painting, here and in a third work, untitled (brown 68 before rothko 69), 2007–2008, not to mention the Brancusi riff accomplished by bird in space (p’a Bobby L. Rush), 2007, a totemic sculpture that drolly balances a feather atop an eyeglass frame atop a narrow column of wood. My curiosity was piqued by this medley of the visible, the invisible, and the deliberately hidden, a mixture that refuses to disclose more than an oblique hint about histories of which I am ignorant. So I went home and looked it all up on Wikipedia—and I was overwhelmed by information about the brutal Spanish conquest of the Inca, the FBI assassination of two Illinois Black Panthers, the “unconquered” Native American tribes of Florida, and Tupac Amaru Shakur’s indigenous Peruvian namesake. But I remain meaningfully defeated by the artworks themselves, by their alternately antagonistic and protective insistence on concealing more than they reveal.

Lori Waxman