“I Am Not Who You Think I Am” Is More Than You Think It Is: Salvador Jiménez Flores Revisited
by Michael DeMaagd Rodriguez
Recently, Kevin Buist, artist, writer and ArtPrize Exhibition Director, posted a short essay of his initial impressions of the Kendall College of Art and Design 2014 MFA Thesis Exhibition. In it, he gently lamented what he saw as an often overcrowded, over-polished, “capital M Meaning” art production. He asks the artists to instead show us their processes, their unresolved messes, and their more vulnerable, less confident responses. “I want art that makes me curious about the world,” he writes. “Not art that makes me curious about art.”
Predictably, there was some quick backlash, most thoughtfully from the exhibiting artists themselves . Challenged to be more specific about his first impressions, Buist returned to the show, this time focusing on the work of Salvador Jiménez Flores, “I Am Not Who You Think I Am.” This more formal review is well-written, sincere and beautifully describes Flores’ ceramic masks. Accurately, I believe, Buist recognizes the artist’s intent to engage the “mask/cast duality,” as the objects have the power to simultaneously copy, distort, adorn or conceal the face.
Though he praises the masks, Buist also questions the contribution of some of the other exhibition elements. Most specifically, he critiques a digital audio loop, a ceramic head seemingly crushed beneath a stack of cultural theory books and a few too-obviously-titled masks. These few “heavy-handed” elements, he writes, are that much more disappointing because the rest of the exhibition “operates so deftly”.
Once again, Buist’s review quickly earned some sharp, but unfairly brief attacks from an online audience. However controversial, Kevin’s writing does exactly what we should hope for in an art review: it elevates the artwork into a further reaching public discussion. And, ultimately, it makes us yearn to see it ourselves.
It was exactly that, in fact, which sent me back to The Fed Galleries for a better look. I wanted to spend deliberate time with Flores’ exhibition to see what more I could uncover and find out how well Kevin’s reflections match my own.
What I found was that there is indeed much more to experience than what a cursory viewing can provide. And while I am sympathetic to the criticisms Buist makes, I found there is still much that he misses. Language, both Spanish and English in this case, is central to Flores’ work. A comfortable understanding of both is not requisite in order to be moved by the work, but it certainly helps to uncover the nuances, the appreciation of which outweighs concerns of apparent heavy-handedness.
As I approached the gallery space from the main corridor, I was immediately drawn to the wall-hung ceramic masks, perhaps because of their prominent lighting. My attention was so caught that initially I barely noticed the other pieces in the room and bypassed them entirely. Like Buist, I was amused, curious and startled, sometimes all at once. “El marciano”, or “The alien,” has Ilegal scripted across his collar in a delicate old English style font. What could have been a more predictably sad or indignant interpretation of our country’s woeful immigration laws becomes hilarious when we realize that this alien has cactus leaf hair, hot pepper ears, and shimmering gold sci-fi style sunglasses. If the present legal situation weren’t so sad, it’s cultural outplaying based on fear and ignorance would be laughable, Flores seems to say. Oh, and imagine what you may about those illegals who are out there somewhere, but, let’s be real, they’re not that different from you.
Nearby this piece, hangs a bolder, more confident, impatient face. His ears are adorned with golden geometry and large plugged piercings. Flames dance on his chest and on the top of his head. This guy is untamed and unapologetically so. Classic tattoo script reads que me ves across his face. The omission of punctuation allows for several possible, all equally relevant meanings. First, a question: what do you see in me? Or, perhaps why are looking at me? Second, an explanation of action: so that you see me. Finally, an expression of a wish: that you may see me.
It is clear that Flores considers his exploration of identity and oppression within a much larger historical context, from Spanish conquest to the Mexican Revolution to present day. The linear display of masks framed within two parallel lines is evocative of an illustrated timeline. It is significant then that the procession of masks begins with “La Maria pata rajada.” Literally the rough cut pawed Mary, this is a reference to both cultural-religious hegemony and a derogatory term for barefooted indigenous peoples.
Next to it is a crass and satirically titled mask of a very similar sentiment. “La Virgen Morena,” Mexico’s celebrated patron Lady of Guadeloupe, is glazed in a ghostly pale white. On the far end of the line, the final mask is the most simply decorated of them all. A rich red face appears to have been partially dipped in smooth white glaze, the eyes look intently into the distance. Below it reads, “Assimilating to a White bred West Michigan.”
If “La Maria pata rajada” and “la Virgen Morena” represent where Flores came from and the origin of a particular history of oppression, “Assimilating” is where he finds himself now. The Christian crosses and dollar signs found in the Aztec-like geometry of the wall painting above these masks are relevant to both places. Religious morality and money are the dominant forces in West Michigan culture and politics. And, the Spanish conquistadors, of course, were out to acquire both gold and souls.
“Leer quita lo pendejo” is the title of the head flattened beneath a stack of books. Buist found this assemblage a bit over-played, too directly illustrating “the anxiety caused by the fact that matters of cultural and racial identity are both personal and theoretical.” I might agree except that the joy of this particular piece is actually in its title. “Leer” is to read, “quita” removes, and “pendejo” is literally pubic hair (and there is great potential here for hilarious mistranslation). In some Spanish-speaking countries “pendejo” is semi-vulgar slang for juvenile or adolescent. In Mexico, it is similarly used to refer to someone who is immature, reckless, or stupid. Crassly, a dumbass. So, we can fairly translate the title to something like Reading makes you less of a dumbass.
I am immediately reminded of enthusiastic elementary school teachers and ubiquitous library posters that proclaim Reading is fun! Reading is cool! Reading opens the world to you! Reading is power! Reading gives you opportunity! Yes, says Flores wryly, it can also makes you less of an asshole, but at times the truth will flatten you like a pancake…
Throughout the entire exhibit, I heard via a digital audio audio a male voice, presumably the artists, asking question such as, “Who are you? Who am I? What are you? Yeah…you.” The exact origin of the sound is not seen, an intentional choice that is enhanced by an echoing voice. Buist suggests that the questions of identity exploration are already self-evident in the work and needn’t be asked aloud. Furthermore, he writes that they become jarring, pulling him “from the depth of reflection into a space where I’m reminded that there is a Message here that I am expected to pick up.”
These questions can be interpreted in a couple ways. Most obviously, they are basic questions of one’s personal exploration of identity. Additionally, these are questions that are probably asked of the artist by others, and often. Interrogative micro-aggressions, intentional or not, are regular fare for people who for whatever reason don’t fully fit in with what is familiar. We are most comfortable when we know where someone is from, what they are doing here, and how we can expect them to behave. We demand that people identify themselves so we know how we should behave towards them. By asking the questions aloud, Flores is turning the tables; it becomes the viewers’ responsibility to also consider who they are. Yeah…you.
And while Buist found the audio interrupting, pulling him away from the work, I found it to do exactly the opposite. I had the luxury of being alone in the gallery; not a single other guest visited while I was there. I was alone with the masks. The questions on the audio loop where separated by sufficient periods of time such that I could drift into reflection and be genuinely surprised again each time another question was asked. I would look up and the only faces I would see were those of the masks. Some caught my gaze and others looked away. Others closed their eyes, ignoring me entirely. As I moved through the room the direction of the masks’ attention appeared to change. Were they talking to me? Or amongst themselves? Which one was speaking? At times I felt a natural urge to repeat the questions back to the masks. Who ARE you? WHAT are you? Who am I to you? It was as if I wasn’t just observing the masks, I was tensely conversing with them.
Buist says, “I want art that makes me curious about the world.” While that is an excellent perspective from which to experience and evaluate artwork, I would extend that to, “I want art that can also make curious about myself.” And by that more difficult measure, “I Am Not Who You Think I Am” finds itself within the gold standard. It is a remarkably cohesive work of great depth and relevance that skillfully balances humor, suffering, and introspection. Sigue, Salvador Jiménez Flores, please.