At first blush, the fetching cheerleader with Bettie Page bangs and twinkling blue eyes appears to be the stuff of a teenager's wet dream. That is until she begins speaking, spewing threats to place your nuts on a dresser and smash them to bits with a spiked bat. She then offers a seductive wink.
The maniacal minx stars in one of local artist Luis Gispert's early videos, titled Can it be that it was all so simple then (2001), on view at the MoCA satellite space in Wynwood as part of the artist's first comprehensive solo exhibition in a museum.
It features the young, athletic model wearing a pleated uniform and ruby red lipstick while lip-synching foul Wu-Tang Clan lyrics and posturing menacingly against a lurid green backdrop. The chroma-key background, typically used in film production before computer-generated imagery is layered in, became an early trademark for the artist.
Gispert's sensational eye- and ear-blistering show — featuring large-scale photographs, videos, sculptures, and films dating from 1999 to the present — mines the artist's urban Cuban-American roots, his youthful fascination with hip-hop and car culture, and the baggage dredged up during several years of Freudian therapy. And, of course, there are his signature boomboxes, which reference the artist himself and appear everywhere in his work.
The exhibition is both a revelation of Gispert's technical mastery and a display of how his work continues to evolve.
"I think one of the really interesting things about the show is how the artist can take stock of where his work was coming from originally and how far it's gone," says MoCA director and chief curator Bonnie Clearwater, who organized the show. "Luis's work has dealt a lot with reclaiming sensations of his youth and pop culture references but has grown to include the impact that films by directors like Antonioni, Fellini, and Buñuel and even B slasher movies by people like John Carpenter had on him early in his life."
Another video featuring Gispert's signature cheerleaders is 2002's Block Watching, in which a young blonde freighted with bling shimmies suggestively while lip-synching to the irritating wail of a screeching car alarm.
In a lush series of photographs that first earned him the art world's attention, Gispert depicts his cheerleaders dripping with ghetto-fab hip-hop jewelry and elaborate press-on nails while posed in intricate arrangements, referencing the artist's interest with baroque religious paintings and gang culture.
In 2001's Untitled (Hoochy Goddess), a girl with a raspberry-smeared gob seems to levitate like a Catholic saint in midair. She wears a MAC-10 pendant around her neck and appears to be flashing gang signs with her hands.
Likewise, in 2001's Untitled (Three Asian Cheerleaders), a trio of girls clad in red uniforms is reminiscent of a Renaissance painting where an angel appears to announce the virgin birth of the Christ child. One of the cheerleaders floats beatifically with her arms spread wide over the other two girls, one of which seems to have fainted from the vision into the other girl's lap.
Among the skull-staving works from the über-kitschy series Urban Myths are Untitled (Bedroom) and Untitled (Living Room), both from 2003.
In the first photograph, Gispert's mother wears an opulent wedding gown and veil. While gazing heavenward, she perches on a bed with her hands clasped as if praying. Behind her, the room bursts with ornate lamps, framed pictures, a religious statue, and sundry knickknacks. A shiny silver boombox floats near her feet.
In the second image, Gispert has posed his grandmother and two adolescent cousins on a couch in a hyper-ornamented living room. They're dressed like fugitives from a Velasquez painting. His grandma is clad in a lacy red and black gown and mantilla as she fans herself, while the girls sport tiaras and black velvety frocks. One of the youngsters hangs in midair as if she just launched herself off the couch.
Perhaps Gispert's soaring vision is best evident in mind-altering films such as 2005's Stereomongrel, created in collaboration with Jeff Reed, in which the artist seeks to re-create the visceral wallop of the wide-screen CinemaScope films that affected him most as a young man.
The haunting ten-minute film opens with a girl, clad in a red negligee, who awakens during the aftermath of what appears to be a birthday bash in a New York loft. The prepubescent protagonist leans out a window and is crowned by a falling box kite. As she then wanders the streets, she is approached by a group of scantily dressed women who zap her with bolts from their boomboxes, sending her into a hyperreal world full of unforgettable characters. The girl enters the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she encounters a bizarre cast of guards, geishas, and a bare-chested Indian figure plaintively warbling a Cuban bolero, before she ends up engulfed by a painting.
The more ambitious Smother (2008) also delivers a psychologically jarring impact and is partly fueled by three years of psychoanalysis, through which Gispert began remembering childhood nightmares. Wall text informs that these nightmares became part of an imagined past from which the artist drew his harrowing imagery.
The 26-minute movie is a heady oedipal brew in which the young protagonist still wets his bed and is oppressed by his clinging mother who threatens him with castration. The boy lives in an '80s-style narco mansion inherited from his drug-dealing father.
As the boy explores the outside world on his bike, he stumbles across a villain — played by Steven Bauer, Al Pacino's sidekick in Brian De Palma's iconic Scarface — who is slaughtering a hog. The butcher offers the kid a ride home and romances his mother. The film ends with the boy becoming a German shepherd — Gispert's childhood dog — and Bauer dropping the pooch in a boiling vat of oil. As the canine cooks in the cauldron, bolts zap outward from the animal's crisped carcass. The roasted hound ends up turning into a boombox containing the boy's soul before a group of Rastafarians carries off the stereo.
There is no arguing that Gispert's deft juggling of urban subcultures and tradition defies the senses and offers a startlingly singular vision of the role hybrid culture plays on identity. Just like there can be no arguing that this show is an eye-opener of the first magnitude and not to be missed.