Three new exhibits explore the ritualization of violence.
Thursday, April 1, 2004
Three exhibitions that have violence as a connecting theme open this Friday at the Lisa Coscino Gallery in Pacific Grove. Collectively named “Arenas,” the exhibitions address the sublimation of this urge that is apparently an essential ingredient in the human psyche.
Photographs by two Los Angeles-based artists explore the arenas of, respectively, the bullfight and barrio boxing. The bullfight-related images by Mexican photographer Justin de Leon, and the inner-city boxing pictures by Guatemalan Mario de Lopez are at once cool and compassionate, searching as they do for candid moments that bring the subjects to light with neither judgment nor flag-waving.
“The photographs that we’ve selected are not action photographs depicting the brutality of the bullfight or boxing,” explains gallery owner Lisa Coscino, “but behind-the-scene images that capture the stark, beautiful, and even poetic aspects of those participating. We’re not condoning anything, or even getting into a discussion of whether the bullfight is right or wrong, or whether boxing is unnecessarily violent. We’re showing two artists’ responses to the gravity of the ritual in both.”
Both de Lopez and de Leon are young graduates of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, outside Los Angeles. Their individual brands of photography rebuff the straight, hard-focused photography of mid-20th-century modernism in favor of an idiosyncratic, spontaneous, documentary approach.
De Leon recreates the effect of walking through the back corridors of a bullring, glancing down passages, glimpsing the bullfighter’s dressing room, taking in the slaughter chamber, stepping along the ring to see a torero’s jacket glimmer in the sun. Rather than capturing the pounding hooves of an angry bull, the sheet of blood flowing from the darts in the bull’s shoulders, the lolling tongue, the eternal eyes fixed on the red muleta, or even the waving arms of avid spectators, de Leon’s pictures at the Coscino Gallery are hushed, still flashes of something seen out of the corner of an eye.
De Leon eschews formal devices that monumentalize a subject. Dense shadows crop figures in unexpected ways, and forms, seemingly photographed on the fly, occupy the picture plane in the most tentative of ways.
Coursing through this limited selection of his photographs is a sense of fascination with the spectacle, perhaps even a reverence for the ritual “dance of death” that began on the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages. During the eight centuries of war between the Christians and Moors, the knights of each faction would at times grow weary of the campaign and would amuse themselves with competitive hunting. Deer and bear served as their quarry, but these animals were no match for the seasoned warriors. But when they encountered the Iberian bull, the hunt turned deadly; the bull always turned on his attackers rather than fleeing, fought bravely, and gave the knights the challenge they desired.
Some entrepreneurial Spaniard rounded up several bulls and recreated the thrill of the hunt in village arenas. Subsequent bullfights, or corridas, developed into a spectacle that appealed to the Spanish soul. The aristocracy used corridas to commemorate important events and entertain their guests, with themselves taking the role of bullfighter. Papal decrees forbidding the bloody ritual never stopped the Spanish nobility from pursuing their bullfights, but when the French Bourbon dynasty assumed power in Spain, the attractions of court life lured the nobility from their bullrings to the corridors of the palace. That left the commoners to take up the sword and cape and make the spectacle their own.
Instead of the equestrian lancer or mounted knight holding center stage, the squire, on foot, became the major player, developing into today’s matador. The lancer’s role became secondary, a mere warm-up act for the torero’s performance that leads to the moment of truth.
In de Leon’s photography, matadors are depicted in such a way that one knows the bullfighter is aware of his heritage and the link he is with the past. De Leon shows the torero’s solemn countenance, the lavish ornamentation of jacket and breeches, or the silhouetted bull in color photographs that seem like furtive glances at history.
A similar sensibility runs through Mario de Lopez’s black-and-white photographs. Instead of the ornamented matador in the reflective moments before a bullfight, he shows barrio boys in their gyms, facing off against the punching bag, striking poses in front of a mirror, tying on their gloves, lost in the padding of their head guards. They are gritty, with flattened noses and prominent foreheads. The young fighters seem locked in claustrophobic spaces. The idea that a career in boxing is the only way out of their bottom-rung lives informs each image.
Like de Leon, de Lopez avoids sharp focus and pictures full of detailed information. His images allude, suggest and imply; instead of crisp images that bring the viewer in contact with the minutiae of this world, the photographer offers glances, as if he himself is an interloper. The effect is one of alienation. This is a tough world and the viewer/photographer is out of place in it. And like de Leon’s photographs, there is not judgment about the “sport,” but a matter of fact reportage.
The third exhibition also opening this Friday is an installation by Pacific Grove artist Heidi Hybl, Falling: War, Woe and a Fall from Grace. Hybl’s work focuses on the arena of power in western industrial society, and how the decisions of a few, empowered and patriarchal, affect the lives of so many in the form of waged war.
The installation percolates with outrage. The vehicle for her message is a series of cutout figures, genderless, classless, the archetypal Everyman. These are arranged in rows and treated with splashes of red paint, ersatz blood, and collaged news clippings and photographs. Gathered since the 9/11 horror, the installation addresses the abuses within the corridors of power and public complacence as the invasion of Iraq grew closer. Hybl sees these events as yet another manifestation of men behaving according to type. The installation also has a participatory aspect; visitors can make their own “people” and add them to the display.
The “Arenas” show opens with a reception Friday from 6-8pm at the Lisa Coscino Gallery, 216 Grand Ave., Pacific Grove. 646-1936.