Even at their weaker moments, shows by the Border Art Workshop/ Taller de Arte Fronterizo are impossible to dismiss. The group's annual "Border Realities" shows at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park have always exuded uncanny energy, astute awareness, anger and an ambition to change the unwieldy policies and unfortunate attitudes governing the U.S. border with Mexico.
The collective of artists, writers and performers from San Diego and Tijuana was established in 1984, and over the years the group has proven to be as organic, fluctuating and controversial an entity as the border culture it has attempted to define.
BAW/TAF's new show, "Whitewashed," at the Centro through May 17, numbers only four current group members--Susan Yamagata, Juan Carlos Toth, Michael Schnorr and Carmela Castrejon. But in true collaborative spirit, the four have invited more than a dozen other artists, from the border region as well as England, to participate in the show. The works of all the artists blend together into an experience that is bound to leave viewers angrier, humbler, more full of questions and feeling potentially more responsible than when they arrived.
The maze of installations that make up this show bear no signatures. All of the artists' names are painted on one--whitewashed--entry wall and are listed on a handout sheet at the entrance to the show. But once inside, the who fades in importance before the what . The issues of racism, political and social oppression, injustice and ignorance are key; authorship is not.
This show, like many BAW/TAF presentations, is as much assault as aesthetic experience. Its sounds, images and spaces press urgent claims upon the viewer, whose only options are to humbly face the charges or to deny them and engage in the ignorance and purposeful suppression of the facts that gives "Whitewashed" its title.
In one installation ("The Movable Conscience" by Richard, Deborah and Michelle Lou), a small, walk-in structure with a single chair and one bare light bulb, memories of growing up Chinese in Mexico and the U.S. are written across yellow walls. The symbolism of the color--long-used as a derogatory reference to Asians--and the tight scale of the room make for a confrontational experience. In this interrogation cell, the viewer is called upon to answer for the racist jabs that undermined the security of these artists' childhoods.
Another installation ("On a Way" by Todd Stands and Susan Yamagata) occupies a narrow hallway that swarms with imagery from floor to ceiling. Overhead, wooden slats placed slightly askew suggest a ragged boat. The lyrics to "Row, row, row your boat" are painted across the slats, and above this ramshackle roof sits a wood cut-out of a small boat with a single passenger. The merry rowing of the childhood song jars at once with the evocation of a more desperate journey, perhaps that of Southeast Asian boat people.
On the painted hallway floor, striped down the center like a street, images of people of various cultures appear tossed by an uncontrollable tide. On one wall, the words "Don't call it racism" hover over images of gunmen; on the other, "Human rights" appears, behind a net of twine, among the faces of the human targets of such racially motivated violence. The terror of exodus, of death squads and other assaults on the body and spirit pulsates in this vibrantly painted passageway.
A darkened room at the end of the hall contains a small model of a house, with walls of collaged newspaper ("Pesa-Dream" by Carmela Castrejon and Gary David Ghirardi). Here, the American dream is built of its own advertisements, but all is not as peaceful as it seems. The quiet domicile, with the glow from its television flickering through a window, is under siege by cut-out helicopters hovering above, the infamous moscas (flies) of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Another installation ("Roomful of Mirrors" by Johnny Coleman) takes a more metaphorical approach. Its view from one white cell through a narrow, barred window to another, suggests infinite entrapment. Speakers mounted on the first, accessible cell play a continuous tape that describes a visit to a wise man sitting before a mirror. He instructs the visitor to "Repeat after me, repeat after me, repeat after me . . . ."
Most of the show employs more blatant symbolism, such as swastikas as emblems of the "New World Dis-order," or what one mural announces as the "Fourth Reich." One installation bears the spray-painted question, "The wall came down in Berlin. Why don't you bring down the fence?" Another has visitors insert their own faces into the cut-out holes atop bodies of immigrants to bring home, in a simple but affecting way, the terrifying realities of a family in illegal flight.
Among the photographs, video installations, photographs and painted works in the show, there is much that stands on wobbly legs conceptually and aesthetically. But even these unresolved works contribute to the intensity of the show and its overall tone of vigilance against injustice. "Whitewashed" is a show of raw power, and even when it erodes into disorder and tirade, it cannot be dismissed.
Other artists participating in the show are Graciela Ovejero, Margaret Honda, Hugo Sanchez, Patricio Chavez, John Francis, Gerardo Navarro, Kit Alexander, James Johnson, John Francis, Keith Piper, Zarina Bhimji, Michael McMillan, Kirsten Aaboe, Osman Deen and AWOL.
Centro Cultural de la Raza, Balboa Park, 235-6135, open Wednesday-Sunday, noon to 5, through May 17.
It's difficult to say whether the drawings show at the Iturralde Gallery complements the large Latin American Drawings show now at the San Diego Museum of Art or vice versa. A lusty sketch by Jose Clemente Orozco and the psychologically disarming drawings of Lucia Maya are but a few of the highlights in this fine selection of work by 20th-Century artists from Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Argentina and Spain, both legends and promising younger artists.
Iturralde Gallery, 7592 Fay Ave., 456-9237, Tuesday-Friday 10-6, Saturday 11-6 and by appointment. Through April 28.
When faced with the work of Jon Serl, questions of the status and seriousness of "outsider" art become moot. Paintings by the 96-year-old artist living near Lake Elsinore are as poignant, wry, lyrical, philosophical, odd, mysterious and familiar as you could wish any art art to be, whatever its qualification.
"Pink Lady With Carp," a show of paintings by Jon Serl, Oneiros Gallery, 711 8th Ave., 696-0882, Friday-Saturday 11-5 and by appointment.