FEBRUARY 17, 2020
WHETHER OR NOT Tolstoy was right in suggesting that only art is capable of setting violence aside, artists have long been uniquely positioned to rouse, revolt, speculate, complicate, tell the truth, and offer protest and possibility in polarized and violent times.
In collaboration with Creative Capital, the nonprofit known for supporting provocative and progressive work, and which in 2019 celebrated its 20th year of funding and advising artists, LARB will publish 12 essays over 12 months on issues facing contemporary art in the United States. Each contributor focuses on a particular year of Creative Capital’s history and/or on a specific artist, beginning with Johanna Fateman’s introduction to the series, which reflected on the founding of Creative Capital (1999) in response to the subsequent decreases in federal funding for individual artists. Here, Greg Allen considers three very different projects of artists funded by Creative Capital in 2005 — Liz Cohen, Natalia Almada, and Pablo Helguera — which examined what it really means to be American.
Together, the essays in this series reflect the current state of arts writing as a field, just as they reveal the myriad ways that art matters now as much as ever.
In 2002, while studying for her MFA in San Francisco, photographer Liz Cohen attended her first lowrider show in Fresno. To understand the highly circumscribed cultural and gender dynamics of the custom car scene, Cohen decided to inhabit every position in it: the (male) roles of car builder and owner and the (female) role of show car bikini model. Her project began with an exhibition of her photographs of the lowrider show and a performance/fundraiser, Bikini Car Wash (2002), in which she sold Polaroids of herself washing cars.
Also in 2002, aspiring filmmaker Natalia Almada received six hours of vintage audio recordings of her late grandmother talking about her father. Almada’s grandmother was the daughter of Mexican president General Plutarco Elías Calles, an influential but controversial political figure who stabilized a country reeling from civil war, but who also founded the oligarchic and authoritarian political party that ruled for most of the 20th century. From this private, subjective, and fragmentary view into a politically fraught history, Almada determined to make a documentary about her grandmother’s and great-grandfather’s life and world.
Meanwhile, in 2003, artist Pablo Helguera wanted to connect people and communities across the Americas, to help recognize shared or resonant histories of migration, colonialism, violence, resistance, and resolve. He set to work finding collaborators and crafting encounters that could take place as part of an ongoing conversation throughout North, Central, and South America.
Though quite different from each other and unrelated, these three artists’ projects were all as ambitious as they were improbable. As performance/sculpture/photography, experimental memoir/history/documentary, and roving symposium-as-public-art, they ignored tidy distinctions of artistic mediums. Without extensive track records to evaluate, these genre-breaking artists faced significant obstacles in funding and realizing their projects, but throughout 2003, they pushed forward: by 2004, Cohen had found her car, a rickety sedan once manufactured in East Germany called a Trabant, which she would transform into an El Camino, an iconic Chevy car-truck from the 1970s. The incongruity of the mashup resonated with the hybrid peculiarities of lowrider culture, as well as with Cohen’s own understanding as a first-generation Colombian American of the immigrant and assimilationist process. She set out to transform herself: to learn all the technical skills necessary for her project, and to reshape her body and its presentation into the sexualized mode of a car bikini model. Bodywork (2006) was a photographic self-portrait project in the midst of that performative transformation. Trabantamino (2002–’10) was the ever-evolving car, shown as a kinetic sculpture in galleries and museums around the world, and as a category-breaking marvel on the lowrider circuit. “An aspect of the project that really hasn’t been explored,” Cohen told Sarah Margolis-Pineo in 2011, “is the aspect of me really going through the project over time. It went in fits and starts, but it really consumed nine years of my life.”
Almada found similar success: production for her documentary, El General (2009), extended from 2005 right up until its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, where it won a directing award. The film screened widely in festivals and museums and in theatrical and broadcast runs, and its visibility brought renewed attention to another documentary she had completed in the interim, Al Otro Lado (2005), and catalyzed her next project, El Velador (2011), in which she deployed her Brakhage-inspired filmmaking language to tell others’ stories of drug trafficking-related cross-border violence and loss.
Likewise, in the summer of 2006, Helguera toured The School of Panamerican Unrest. He took a portable schoolhouse and video library from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, convening a “nomadic forum or think-tank” with 25 different communities across the Americas. The trip spawned a separate traveling exhibition, documentary, and publication, which continued to extend the threads of common culture traced by The SPU. In subsequent projects, Helguera has continued to devise institutional gestures that become the nexus of communities in various locales. Since 2013, for example, Helguera’s Spanish-language secondhand bookstore Librería Donceles (2013–), has taken root in cities across the United States, like a Spanish literature Johnny Appleseed.
Besides their individual experiences within Latin American, immigrant, and US cultures, these artists resolutely pursued projects that were not only significant in themselves, but which had formative influences on the subsequent arc of their artistic practices. They are three among the 48 artists who received support from Creative Capital that year, artists from many backgrounds, working across the United States in many disciplines, whose work dealt with gender experience and identity; racial, immigrant, and cross-border acculturation; economic and political demagoguery and oligarchy; and community-building and finding common ground in shared experience.
Relevance now is not always the most salient filter for considering artworks made 15 years ago; the interval offers slightly too much hindsight, and too little historical perspective, but this span, not quite a generation, does yield insights on individual artistic practices, and how specific projects have influenced an artist’s subsequent career. It is now clear that through these projects, these three artists have developed into powerful creative forces engaged with some of the most urgent issues ever faced by our shared culture and our country.
Greg Allen is an artist and writer in Washington, DC. He began publishing his blog about art, film, and the creative process at greg.org: the making of, in 2001. A series of blog posts about Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing was included in Social Medium: Artists Writing 2000–2015 (Paper Monument, 2016). His writing has also appeared in Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art, Cabinet, Art in America, and ARTnews, and The New York Times. He was awarded a Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Art Writers Grant in 2010.