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San Francisco Chronicle: Victor Cartagena’s subtle political wake-up call

Victor Cartagena’s subtle political wake-up call

Kenneth Baker

April 11, 2014

The more topical political art gets, the sooner it starts to look dated. Victor Cartagena has averted this risk by not tying his “Sites/Sights of Intervention” at the Richmond Art Center too closely to events in his native El Salvador.

Works in his complex ensemble evoke the tragedy of Latin American elites’ corruption, civil war and American anticommunist imperialism, but not too specifically.

In this context, an ostensibly simple object such as “Ante-Ojos/Anti-Eyes” (2014) – a framed pair of crushed glasses – summons thoughts of violent reprisal, the punishment of conscientious witness and the blindness of media complicity.

The work even suggests itself as a distant, underprivileged relation of Jasper Johns‘ satirical relief sculpture of lensless glasses, “The Critic Sees” (1961), in which mouths stand in for eyes, and as symbolic windows to a disfigured soul.

Cartagena’s “La Silla y Identidad Rota/The Chair and Broken Identity” (2014) consists of an overturned, busted-up wooden chair spotlighted on the floor, surrounded with tiny torn photographs of nameless people.

An American flag binds what remains of the chair seat and its unbroken leg, suggestive of both a bandanna and a tourniquet. Cartagena’s background and the work’s bilingual title link it to the use of torture in Central American conflicts and imperialist interventions. The moral nosedive in American interrogation practice and foreign policy since Sept. 11, 2001, gives Cartagena’s piece even wider relevance.

Similarly, revelations about targeted assassinations and “extraordinary rendition” in the so-called war on terror have expanded the reference of Cartagena’s “Materia Prima” and “Transparencias/Transparencies” (2004/2012).

The former consists of a light table crowded with jars of tinted fluid, each holding a small photo portrait. A projection of larger, fainter human images washes over the wall-mounted light box. The box’s form recalls – perhaps derisively – elements of Donald Judd‘s studiedly nonreferential “stack” wall sculptures.

Cartagena’s “Transparencias” and his other uses of anonymous portrait photos may borrow from French artist Christian Boltanski, who has long used such images to evoke the nameless, unnumbered casualties of war and the Holocaust.

Cartagena’s “Sights/Sites” surprises by its emotionally stirring quality. It taps into our sense of guilty fecklessness as citizens of an empire that has reacted with vicious interventions for decades out of panic at losing its grip on world power.

Victor Cartagena: Sites/Sights of Intervention: Mixed media installation works. Through May 30. Richmond Art Center, 2540 Barrett Ave. (510) 620-6772.


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