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Unmasked @ MACLA

Dulce Pinzón, Bernabe Mendez as Spiderman, 2005-10, C-print on sintra, 30 x 40"
Unmasked, a show of painting, drawing, photography and graphic design, explores the superhero from a Latino perspective.  There are paintings by Carlos Donjuan of shadowy figures donning masks and other disguises; photos by Hector Hernandez of figures cloaked in glossy capes, posed theatrically inside industrial warehouses; and a notable comic panel by Rio Yañez of an imaginary collaboration between Batman and the performance activist/artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña.  But if the larger idea, as outlined by the curators, is to probe the meaning of hybrid identity against a backdrop of illegal immigration — and to demonstrate how Anglo comic heroes have taken on biracial, transnational identities — then the exhibition falls short.  The lone exception – and what makes this flawed show worth visiting — is the work of photographer Dulce Pinzón
A native of Mexico City living in Brooklyn, Pinzón presents staged photos of immigrant workers on the job: the same anonymous service workers seen in any city or suburb, only here they’re in costume.  Catwoman appears as a nanny.  Spiderman as a high-rise window washer.  Superman as a bike messenger and so forth.  Pinzón presents these visual nonsequiturs with wall labels from which we learn that Bernabe Mendez, a window washer, sends $500 a month to his home state of Guerrero; that Luis Hernandez, a native of

Rio Yañez, Batman and Gomez-Peña, 2008, digital print, 20 x 16"

Veracruz, sends home $800 from his job as a jackhammer operator; that Minerva Valencia, a nanny, sends $1,600 a month back to Puebla; and that Noe Reyes, a bike messenger, remits a jaw-dropping two grand a month – a sum that makes one wonder what sort of goodies are in that red box hanging off his handlebars.  Whether the dollar amounts are real or inflated isn’t the point.  Even if these men and women sent home only a fraction of what Pinzón claims, their actions would still stand as heroic given what we know of immigrant life and the cost of living in New York. The artistic victory notched rests with the recognition that superheroes are everywhere among us, and that one needn’t possess superhuman strength or supernatural powers to join their ranks.  None of this is exactly news, but Pinzón’s hyperreal presentation of this information drives you to wonder what sacrifices these workers make to send that money home. 

That message, delivered at MACLA, a Chicano art center, may be another instance of preaching to the choir.  Yet it’s one that in the current political climate bears repeating. Last week, the New York Times published a story about a U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire in which Scott P. Brown, the Republican contender, attacked the Democratic incumbent, Jeanne Shaheen, with a TV ad that juxtaposed a horde of people rushing a fence (presumably along the border) alongside a clip of ISIS militants before they beheaded the journalist James Foley.  This, mind you, in New Hampshire, a state where only 5 percent of its residents are foreign-born, and only 3 percent are Hispanic. 
Carlos Donjuan, Decada, 2010, mixed media on panel, 24 x 36"
I bring this up because there are artists out there who have staked careers on addressing such challenges.  Earlier I mentioned Rio Yañez’s comic borrowing of the persona of Guillermo Gomez-Peña, the leader of the famed performance group La Pocha Nostra.  In Yañez’s fantasy, Gomez-Peña enlists Batman to "play a postmodern transgender border agent." I howled. The words are so Gomez-Peña.  But I also lamented.  Reading them I could almost hear his raspy, conspiratorial voice, and I wished that he (or at least artifacts of his performances) were here.  I also wondered, since this show is supposedly about comics, multicultural identity and cross-border politics, why the paintings and drawings of the similarly fiendish satirist Enrique Chagoya weren’t on view.  
He and others of similar background and intellectual disposition could have contributed a lot to a show like this. 
Unmasked @ MACLA through November 15, 2014.  

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