What is it about an outlaw? There are few limits to our collective tendency to mythologize them. We blow them all out of proportion. We romanticize the hell out of them. In order to secure outlaws in the firmament of lore, we even ascribe certain moral codes to their legends. We distort the often mundane facts of their deeds to suit a more engrossing tale. We even draw distinguishing lines between them, (Butch Cassidy good outlaw, and Al Capone bad outlaw). Whether it be pirates, bank robbers, or the Yakuza, our fascination with outlaws never wanes.
Entire music genres have spawned from our adoration of the gangster, and it is here that the mirror reflects itself. Over a dozen narcocorrido musicians have been murdered since 2006. Earlier this year, Julio Cesar Leyva Beltran, a singer with the Mexican band Los Ciclones del Arroyo, refused to play a requested song at a party. He was forcibly removed from the party, then tortured and shot in the leg. The narcocorrido bands sing drug ballads, naturally. The songs often name names, and favor one Mexican cartel or another. The narcocorrido bands are fearless, and they make gangsta rap look very tame.
It is that sort of artistic bravery that looms over “Narcolandia“, the latest exhibit at Coagula Curatorial. The show features over two dozen artists from Los Angeles and San Francisco all tackling the gruesome subject of the drug and gun trade across the Mexico and U.S. border. Art can serve many purposes, sure, but I think it’s as historical document that art is often at its most cogent. I’ll take “Guernica” over “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” any day.
The artists represented in Narcolandia are working in a variety of styles and media, which serves to underscore the complexity of their topic. William Acedo employs a traditional woodblock print; Matthew Thomason’s work echoes Jasper Johns. Karen Fiorito imagines Christ as an advocate for medical marijuana. Txutxo Perez stands out, exhibiting great versatility as he veers between the aforementioned woodblock and comic book pulp. Yet when dealing with such solemn issues, the simplest approach can be the most potent. So, Pancho Lipschitz’ “Sopa de Cabeza” with its Warhol deflating directness, and Victor Gastelum’s stenciled metal box “Moviendo cosas pesadas, Moving heavy things” are the two pieces I find myself contemplating long after I’ve left the gallery.
For all the dry wit on display, not one of these artists is glorifying the violence of the drug trade or its power players. They are merely recording it all for posterity. Let Hollywood romance the outlaw and our artists put them on notice.
Narcolandia runs through Sept. 22, 2012.Coagula Curatorial
977 Chung King Road
Los Angeles CA 90012
Open Wednesday thru Saturday, noon – 5 PM and by appointment.
Text and photos by Keith Ross Dugas.