If you think American racial assumptions and rigid social structures are unacknowledged and toxic, half a century ago they were much worse. For example, when my parents visited me in San Francisco from their home in New York for the first time in the late 1970s, my father was dumbfounded to learn that our mailman was Asian. In his experience—which encompassed most of the 20th century — he’d never encountered an Asian worker in any sphere of government or commerce apart from restaurants and laundries. Carlos Villa, the subject of a two-venue retrospective in San Francisco, dared to embark on a career in that milieu. His decades-long success as an artist and cultural catalyst is documented in the eye-opening exhibition, Worlds in Collision, at the Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery. Independent curators Mark Dean Johnson and Trisha Lagaso Goldberg, supported by Sherwin Rio, organized this enormous project, which includes a formidable catalog.
Carlos Villa (pronounced vee-ya) was born in 1936 in San Francisco of Filipino heritage. He grew up in the Tenderloin district, an economically impoverished yet richly multicultural environment. (Lucy Lippard, writing in the catalog, quotes Villa saying that many Filipinos of his generation embraced Black cultural codes growing up.) Leo Valledor, a slightly older cousin with whom Villa was close his entire life, gave him early art lessons. Villa first exhibited his work in 1958 and graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1961, later earning an MFA from Mills College in 1963. He spent the next five years striving to break into the New York art world with minimalist sculptures and abstract drawings. The latter, made with felt pens on paper, feature arcs of color in rapid sequence that form overlapping, worm-like shapes suggestive of viscera. He achieved attention for this work and the beginnings of a career, but returned to San Francisco in 1969, where he embarked on a long stint as a professor at SFAI. From that point forward, his work veered away from commercially sanctioned modes of expression toward the less fashionable exploration of identity. At the Art Institute, Villa grew to be a beloved figure and a leader in bringing diversity issues to the fore through classes, symposia and exhibitions he organized there under the omnibus title Worlds in Collision, which Johnson and Lagaso Goldberg borrowed for this exhibition. Villa died in 2013 at age 76.
The AAM features work from the 1970s; the SFAC segment contains works from the 1980s and 1990s. The latter opens with Surrender Monkeys (1988), a small cage-like construction hung from the ceiling. Villa deconstructed a found cast rubber monkey figure and covered it with feathers, metal hoops and paper pulp; the message is that this artist will not be anyone’s exotic pet. Rather, he will tear himself apart, if necessary, to reconfigure his image.
Twentieth-century American immigration policies allowed some Asian men into the country as laborers, but not women. A group of mostly Filipino men lived lonely lives in single-room occupancy hotels, like the infamously proud but shabby International Hotel on Kearny Street near North Beach. Villa created a suite of door-like pieces in homage to these men, several of which appear at the SFAC as large sculptural installations that recall the I Hotel’s long, empty corridors, which, in the exhibition, stand as emblems of a society that encouraged some immigrants and locked out others. My Father Walking up Kearny Street for the First Time (1995), a doorway covered in deep black feathers with the word ORIENT on the wall
includes a Panama hat mounted in the foreground that stands in for Villa’s dad. The blackness of the feathers, juxtaposed against the whiteness of the hat, ominous as the abyss at the center of an Anish Kapoor sculpture, signals the mortal dangers facing immigrants. A related sculpture, Where My Uncles Went (1996), featuring a fedora floating before a painted doorway, suggests the revolving door through which we all eventually exit.
Villa’s work intentionally ignites a conversation between modernist practice and an exploration of identity, and the two exhibitions mirror that duality and tension. Where the SFAC show is informal, personal and intimate, with few barriers, the AAM show is immaculate, formal, behind glass and a little cold. Ironically, the glassed-in portions emphasize the precious art-object nature of the pieces and their anthropological references to fragile tribal objects.
Two ten-foot-wide unframed paintings from 1982 (What Comes Again, Comes Again, Etc. and Excavation), executed in an allover camouflage style, feature shards of color chasing each other around the canvases as if propelled by a breeze. Four decades after their creation, they remain vital, radiating
vibrant energy and would be perfectly at home in a contemporary painting exhibition. Chicken bones stitched onto both works reveal another ongoing theme in Villa’s work: identity. It’s as if he’s saying, “I can play the contemporary art game as well as anyone, but I’m not going to let you forget who I am. What do you think of me now?” Excavation also has two ghostlike white figures dancing at its center, bringing out another related Villa theme: the suppression of non-white bodies, i.e., the brown body that is his.
Other works document ritualized performances, often with the artist’s nude body becoming the central image in rubbings reminiscent of Yves Klein’s Anthropometries from 1960 — but with critical differences. Where Klein showed objectified female bodies, Villa rubs his brownness in the face of an indifferent-to-hostile white art establishment. He can wear his hipster hat in one image and be covered in drawn tattoos in another, arguing, in both cases, for acceptance of a complex identity.
The decision to highlight four large-scale works from Villa’s cape/coat genre constitutes a curatorial masterstroke. Kite God Coat (1979) swoops down from the ceiling of the Arts Commission Gallery like an enormous angel, animating or fleeing the paper-and-feather cast of the artist’s body, resting on a plinth below. Black rooster feathers form a coat-like shape, attached to a white paper wing fringed with dozens of incisor-like pheasant tail feathers. The effect is unrepentantly theatrical and breathtaking. In Maturing (1979), at the AAM, the tube-like abstractions of his early paintings become fully circular hoses painted in animal blood; they illusionistically leap into the viewer’s space from the surface, surrounded by a fringe of feathers. Third Coat (1977) uses similarly shaped intestine-like drawings on canvas with feathers to imply an animal pelt nailed to the wall. Finally, Painted Cloak (1971), a two-sided work nearly ten feet wide, dominates the exhibition space. One side consists of diminishing spirals in the top center; the verso is covered in blue handprints and white feathers. With its allusions to fans, Lascaux hand prints, painting, Mae West, moth patterns, indigenous art, theatrical costuming and much else, it defies category, and it’s a knockout.
A small gallery at the SFAC devoted to autobiographical work contains large photographic blowups of family gatherings, including Villa’s christening. Campo Santo, a kind of autobiography in eight words, etched on metal plaques chained together and hanging vertically from the ceiling, carries the descriptors, “gambler, friend, janitor, teacher, philanderer, enemy, dreamer, survivor.” Another photograph showing a set of several similar works hanging from trees signals the artist’s identification with things primeval and an ambient fear of racial violence.
At the AAM, two auxiliary galleries feature a new work by Lian Ladia and Sherwin Rio and a small exhibition by younger Filipino American artists influenced by Villa. Michael Arcega and Paulo Asuncion show TNT Traysikel (2019-20), a delightfully berserk motorcycle and sidecar-cum karaoke-bar re-creation of Manila street style. The long-active artist collaborative Mail Order Brides (Eliza Barrios, Reanne Estrada, Jenifer K. Wofford) have a video and photography installation that revisits an earlier collaboration with Villa that extends their decades-long satirical investigations into the meaning of femininity in indigenous, immigrant and American cultures, through outrageous costumes and makeup. Paul Pfeiffer shows two eerie boxing videotapes (with one boxer digitally erased) that perform a related deconstruction of masculinity through the world of athletic spectacle.
This long-overdue exhibition of Carlos Villa points to the number of influential Bay Area artists who haven’t gotten due recognition for lack of national media attention. The current embrace of his work rests not only with the fact that identity-based work is now widely understood but because the objects he left behind display an unerring visual eye and an informed, assertive beauty we rarely encounter. Seeing so much of it here accomplishes what a retrospective should. We can follow the path of a man’s thoughts over a lifetime, the breakthroughs and the dead-ends, and take heart in the way the pieces cohere. Here’s hoping the curators have accomplished for Villa the same level of posthumous renown that we’ve seen for earlier Bay Area artists like Jay DeFeo and Theresa Cha.
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Carlos Villa: “Worlds in Collision” @ Asian Art Museum through Oct. 24, 2022.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.