Stepping inside Wynwood's new Hardcore Art Contemporary Space (HACS), one is instantly surprised by an image of a visibly aroused Jesus Christ lounging atop a tattered red upholstered Rococo settee.
The piece, titled Ying & Yang, superimposes a lurid thorn-crowned mug shot of Christ, culled from a Cuban grocery store calendar circa the early Seventies, onto a page from a modern gay porn magazine, depicting a shaved and turgid teenager.
The subversive version of the passion of Christ was created in 2002 by the collaborative duo Guerra de la Paz and appears to be a searing commentary on the sex abuse scandal that cost Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, one of the Catholic Church's mightiest princes, his scarlet skullcap. Cardinal Law resigned in 2002 after the discovery of documents that proved he had covered up incidents of sexual misconduct by his priests during his reign as archbishop in Boston.
It's astonishing a commercial gallery space would allow this controversial piece pride of place given that this type of work rarely pays the rent. However, judging by HACS's first exhibition, "Hardcore Menu: Samples and Dishes" which strives to tackle religious sleazalia, the war in Iraq, homelessness, the sex trade, gay marriage, and other incendiary topics culled from hot button headlines it seems the gallery is hoping to storm Wynwood by provocatively championing the antiestablishment aesthetic under the banner of bleeding-edge activism.
HACS takes its conceptual philosophy and name from "Hardcore: Toward a New Activism," an exhibit organized in spring 2003 by curator Jérôme Sans at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris.
In his essay for the show, Sans used the term hardcore to refer to artists he believed were grappling with controversial issues of the time undiluted by mass media and expressing raw truths in their works. "It is the virulence of a verbal and visual message that unmasks and castigates political and social initiatives that smack of demagoguery," the firebrand wrote.
Milagros Bello, chief curator of the new Wynwood space, appears to agree that there is a growing number of artists/activists who are repositioning their work as a tool for transgression and making statements of "indictment and resistance" rather than creating objects to be merely contemplated.
"We are going to focus on exhibiting a category of art that relevantly deals with political, social, cultural, and religious issues confronting humanity in these increasingly violent times," Bello boldly asserts.
The show's fare, featuring paintings, photography, videos, drawings, sculptures, digital prints, and installations by more than 30 predominantly Latin American artists, is a mishmash of current-event polemics shoehorned together so tightly that little of the work has space to breathe.
In All the Saints, a series of cibachrome photographs, Nelson Garrido offers a sendup of popular church icons in hilarious imagery that plays out like a tour through the sewer of spiritual dementia.
Santo Niño de Atocha makes an appearance as a decrepit butterball boob, clad in a baby blue lace shawl, Mouseketeer ears, and furry Mickey and Minnie slippers. The drooling idiot's cheeks are rouged and covered in flies as a stuffed faux-fur penis dangles lamely between his shanks. A silver cup spilling gaudy plastic flowers sits on the floor nearby. Behind it stands a life-size cardboard cutout of a leering Pan Am stewardess. A memorial photograph of a dead child and the bloodied head of a pig in a basket complete the picture.
Garrido's crucified nude and bearded virgins and saints dressed in drag, complete with hair curlers, frilly aprons, and crowned with garish neon halos, are the most arresting pieces among several religiously themed works that aspire to shock.
Nela Ochoa's video, I Could Be You Could Be Me, depicts the artist dressed as a homeless person approaching strangers and handing them a strip of paper printed with the words of the work's title. The video is difficult to experience because of the gallery's unfavorable lighting; to view the projection, ask an attendant to dim the lights.
Filmed from a distance, Ochoa is seen shaking hands with a group of homeless men and women outside the Miami Rescue Mission in a ham-fisted setup shot. In one segment the artist walks toward a car on a busy downtown street, flagging down a motorist who speeds away. In another, she's captured from behind as she descends a flight of stairs in a desolate plaza.
Intended as a commentary suggesting anyone can become poverty-stricken, the work lacks gravitas and is watered down by the artist's homeless outfit tacked to a nearby wall. A more effective statement lies in an interactive video by Mesopotamia Express, a collective teaming Nestor Prieto and Juan Maristany, whose piece draws parallels between military conflict and culture.
The pair filmed a train carrying war supplies as it rolled through Texas, and laced the footage with geographical imagery and cultural references to ancient Mesopotamia considered the cradle of civilization known today as Iraq. It conveys a powerful message and eschews preachy hysterics.
Not all the samplings in this uneven potluck have the taste of a Hyde Park blowhard belching boisterously from his soapbox, and one gets the impression of a behind-the-scenes fence-sitter, perhaps the money side of the gallery, wrangling a nod to the checkbooks.
A salty digital photograph by Antuan depicts a cobalt-eyed bimbo whose idea of a makeover is coating her face in a juicy layer of salmon lox. The woman is a dead ringer for one of the Cenobites in the 1987 horror flick Hellraiser, sporting dozens of hooks that bristle menacingly from her unsightly fishy cowl. One prays Antuan's spread is a commentary on surgical addiction rather than a glimpse into a funky personal fetish involving bagels and cream cheese.
Exhibited jestingly in the gallery's bathrooms, Deborah Castillo's digital parodies of sex ads commonly found in the back of porn magazines provide some of the show's most tickling works. Horny Latin American Cleaner depicts the bare-breasted artist wearing a latex French maid's outfit while polishing a table and stretching her gums as wide as a worked-over inflatable doll. Another ad touting a naughty nurse's services features a scantily clad Castillo in the role of a floozy Florence Nightingale and waving a plastic syringe the length of a fire extinguisher. She urges those in need of an enema to "Call me now. I'll blow your mind."
In the Project Room, Nina Dotti's installation, The Wedding Cake ... The Bride as Is, seeks to underscore the plight of gays and lesbians wishing to marry, and is awkwardly infantile in nature. A large sculpture of a five-layer wedding cake features a gay and lesbian Ken and Barbie doll-scale bride and groom, climbing the colorful confection to join their better halves waiting atop the meringue-frosted summit of nuptial bliss.
Several Plexiglas boxes, which have the feel of dollhouse dioramas, display what the artist calls 21st-century families. One piece depicts a wife and husband, who has undergone transsexual surgery so he can have a lesbian relationship with her, and their children playing with toys, though the scene seems staged by an eight-year-old.
During the opening, Dotti gave a performance in which she dressed as a bride and married spectators, to whom she gave chintzy rings as if sealing the ceremony in a theatrical spoof of the institution.
Working with such meaty concepts, the artist could have taken a toothier bite into the subject matter rather than settle for frivolous dress rehearsals and playful toy chest arrangements.
Outside the gallery and on an interior wall, Sylvia Riquezes has created a sprawling installation titled The Blob Is Back in Wynwood, which might be a witty stab at runaway gentrification. The piece is named for the cheesy B-movie classic that provided Steve McQueen with his star turn. The sci-fi flick's Blob was an oozy bit of meteor gunk that swallowed everything in sight while growing exponentially and terrorizing a sleepy hamlet. Like an insidious cancer devouring the building, this hokey Blob creeps, crawls, and consumes everything, mimicking the movie's catchy tagline. Riquezes's "urban intervention," as she refers to her precious piece, which consists of rope netting and inflated balls painted red, seems a fitting metaphor for rapacious developers, considering that although the movie's teenage protagonists tried to alert others to the greedy monster's presence, nobody paid attention until it was too late.
The curator could stand to learn a lesson from the Blob and fully digest the razor-edged work Sans was slinging in his skull-cracking Paris show.
I must give Hardcore a larder full of credit for its ambitious goals and willingness to get down and dirty, but this gut-cramping menu generously heaped with portions of hardcore lite left me hankering for a gristly T-bone served on the raw side.
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