I’ll be your mirror: Alejandro Cartagena’s Presidential Selfies

Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind. (Doris Lessing, foreword, The Golden Notebook)

I always thought people were essentially bright. Distracted, sure, and weak, and beaten, but never stupid. (Spider Jerusalem, Transmetropolitan)

Oh my god. I have become television. (Spider Jerusalem, Transmetropolitan)

Within a capitalist consumer society, the cult of personality has the power to subsume ideas, to make the person, the personality into the product and not the work itself. (bell hooks)

I’m compelled to mildly disagree with hooks. Its not solely to be found in a “capitalist consumer society.” I have faith that the evil we do is not confined to one political system, one format, one space (the inappropriate, black gales of laughter I enjoyed, then stifled, then burst loose again, watching The Death of Stalin testify to this).

As you enter the VISA Gallery space at the Marilyn I. Walker the monochromatic starkness will strike you first. All four gallery walls, and the alcove by the entrance, have large black and white photographs, that could be the same image, and any observer will begin to see similarities among them. There’s the smiling, yet interchangeable, nameless, people – or acolytes, crowding about the phone / camera and the man, either of which could be said to the be main subject of this exhibition. There’s the upraised arms of either Enrique Peña Nieto or those “saluting” him as they take their “own” pictures. The specific photographs are uniform in size, but are installed in a cinematic manner, so that each of the walls has a “filmstrip” of multiple images (sometimes seven, sometimes five). The same smiling man appears in them all (I am reminded – as I am, too often, lately, with various political situations, of Gary Callahan, whose true name was The Smiler, from Transmetropolitan. If Peña Nieto is Callahan, then Trump, if we continue to reference Ellis’ series, is surely his predecessor in the Presidential office, whose appellate was The Beast).

But before I engage with the exhibition more, as, despite the apparent simplicity of images and installation, each time I’ve visited I’ve found another layer, another issue, is unwrapped, like the skin of an onion (and perhaps equally tear inducing), here are the words from the press release: Hosted in the VISA Gallery and Student Exhibition Space, Presidential Guide to Selfies asks people to question the motives behind Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s vast collection of publicly shared selfies.

Cartagena has curated a selection of these selfies (currently posted to President’s Official website) as a means to examine whether these images are being shared to show the Mexican President’s engagement with the people of his country, or whether it is merely an exercise in vanity as he ‘poses with his fans.’
Cartagena has also created an accompanying photo book for this exhibition in which he details the events surrounding each selfie.

[Amy] Friend [one of the finest instructors and photo based artists at Brock University, I would add] noted that in an age of cell phones and social media, and with Canada’s own Justin Trudeau often affectionately and critically called ‘Prime Minister Selfie,’ the exhibition’s exploration of politics, social media connectivity and celebrity culture is exceptionally timely.

More “official” words: The deliberate use of merchandising strategies in presidential campaigns and governmental communications have in the past decade sought out ways to close the gap between the people and their candidates or government officials. The epitome of such strategies can be found in one section of the official website of the Mexican president, entitled: “My picture with the President.” Now, 6 years into his presidency, it seems clear that the only thing president Enrique Peña Nieto has been interested in all along was looking his best with his fans.

In the history of religious painting, there’s the theme of the donor – the person(s) who paid for the altarpiece or diptych, of the crucifixion or the angel announcing to Mary her ‘delicate condition’ or the image of god on his throne, attendant by various saints, supplicants or his son – being presented on the edge of the composition, kneeling in devotion, in the divine presence, but not intruding, just luxuriating in the scene. There’s an element of that, here, a basking in a presence that graces the unwashed, unworthy masses, and look how grateful they are…wallowing and revelling in the Presidential presence.

A Presidential Guide To Selfies is part of a much larger project, specifically a book and some online components, so what’s in the VISA Gallery at the MIWSFPA is a fraction of a larger endeavour by Cartagena: a satellite, if you will. In that respect, the work exists differently here in St. Catharines than in Mèxico, and is influenced, perhaps even redefined by ‘here’– as this place permeates it – and I know my sense of ‘here’ is shifted by Cartagena’s work, as well.

I’ve commented before that in #mySTC synchronicity has defined many interactions and has led to an awareness of certain veins – like a spiderweb – connecting seemingly incidental and benign facts. In engaging with Alejandro Cartagena’s exhibition A Presidential Guide To Selfies, several streams of thought have been informing my interpretation, my reaction, to this show, on what I must admit is a somewhat visceral level. When I first visited I was almost belligerent in my distaste for the work: but when I experience such a response to an exhibition or other cultural phenomena, I consider it my responsibility to further explore (perhaps like picking a scab) why such a gut reaction was evoked.

I must, since we’ll be wading into the effluvia of politicians – the Petrowski that you try to avoid stepping in, on the sidewalk even – mention Nietzsche’s admonition about gazing into the abyss and how that does not leave you unsullied. When this show opened, the civic election was underway, and there’s been a heightened level of pundit jabber and posturing about next year’s federal election. Adding insult to injury, we also now, in Ontario, are funding Doug Ford’s government propaganda pretending to be news. I can hear Bruce Cockburn so reasonably requesting that “the world retain in memory that might tongues tell mighty lies.”

A recent spot on Global News – or CTV, forgive me, I lack the will to split hairs among the mainstream media mimic morons – that I failed to avoid refers to Trudeau as our “celebrity” PM, and also mentions that bigoted nonentity Scheer who so often guffaws, à la Howdy Doody, about “PM Selfie.”

Returning to Niagara, this recent civic election has offered some interesting optics too. I’ve walked by a billboard of deposed Regional Czar – oh, sorry, I mean, Chair – Alan Caslin that declares Niagara has too many politicians, and I wonder about the self regard and arrogance that didn’t anticipate that many voters would respond by turfing his malfesant ass out of office.

Oh, politicians; I’d say they’re like that witch bullying the magic mirror into averring that yes, you are the fairest of them all, but I hate to insult the witch by association. Perhaps more Spider Jerusalem is required: “They say they like politicians but couldn’t eat a whole one.” Perhaps because they make you a bit sick to your stomach, I’d aver…

Some of Cartagena’s appropriated scenes are reminiscent of the frenzy around Pope John Paul II’s visit to Canada over two decades ago, or some of the same populist posturing we’ve seen from the current Pope, Francis: and now, as the Catholic cabal hurtles headlong towards canonizing JP II, more and more and even more evidence is emerging that no one, in the history of the world, has done more to aid and abet the rape of children than the former Karol Józef Wojtyla and that Francis’s hands, like all in that space, are filthy, oh so filthy. I assure you, ahem, that your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is surely not gloating at all as he quotes Jesus (Matthew 23:27, KJV) “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”

Before my hyperbole gets further out of hand – if not already too late – lets examine further what Cartegana offers us, in the VISA space and his wider practice that is as grounded in politics and community as it is in a university gallery space.

Alejandro Cartagena was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic but lives and “works in Monterrey, Mexico. His projects employ landscape and portraiture as a means to examine social, urban and environmental issues. Cartagena’s work has been exhibited internationally in more than 50 group and individual exhibitions in spaces including the the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris and the CCCB in Barcelona, and his work is in the collections of several museums including the San Francisco MOMA, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Portland Museum of Art, The West Collection, the Coppel collection, the FEMSA collection, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the George Eastman House and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and among others.” You can read more, about the many things he’s done, here.

An impressive list of accomplishments, and one that lends weight to Selfies. Conversely, the record of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has included not just appropriate concern over the manufactured media persona (spending 2 billion over five years, on publicity, the most EVER spent by a Mexican President) that Cartagena samples for us, but much more horrifying actions. A smattering of shame: allegations of espionage against journalists (a report in the NY Times was even titled, “In Mexico it’s easy to kill a journalist”) to foster silence regarding reportage on the many allegations of corruption, and this has extended to civil rights activist whom have also been deemed “problems” for the Peña Nieto regime. There is also – unbelievably, it would seem, as we get distracted by images and forget facts, perhaps – how in “September 2014, 43 male college students were forcibly taken then disappeared in Guerrero. The forced mass disappearance of the students arguably became the biggest political and public security scandal Peña Nieto had faced during his administration. It led to nationwide protests, particularly in the state of Guerrero and Mexico City, and international condemnation.”

I am again reminded of The Smiler. When you visit A Presidential Guide to Selfies (or purchase the book) hold these – and go and search out more information about jovial and jocular and jaunty President Peña Nieto – and other abuses of power made by this seemingly happy, harmless facade of a man in mind.

Returning to Cartagena’s informative and lovely site: when I visited I also spent significant time with his other works, specifically Carpoolers, and this offers a tonic to Selfies.

The statement regarding that work indicates that Cartagena uses his lens – or as with Selfies, the lens of others – in examining his, and the wider, socio economic world. The statement for that work: Offering a different take on ‘carpooling’ Alejandro Cartagena continues his pointed investigation of the multiple and complex issues relating to unhampered suburban expansion. These images show how carpooling is practised by workers in México.

They are an acute observation to overgrowth issues in Mexico, where suburbs are being built in far away lands with no proper public transportation to the urban centers causing greater commutes and consumption of gas. Even though these workers are not conscious of the ecological impact they have by travelling this way as they are doing it to save time and money, they are a silent contributor to the preservation of our city and planet.

These are works that are disturbing immediately, with the obvious poverty and suffering of the ‘carpoolers’, and offer an interesting contrast to the euphoric – if somewhat vacuous – public in Selfies.

When Trump blundered into the American presidency, via the machinations (successful and failed) indicative of the corpulent yet cancerous American political system, I remember being fascinated by a political “leader” who could communicate directly with people, through Twitter. Put aside the execrable content for a moment, that the format is limited intellectually and can foster spiteful spittles of foolishness, and consider that there was no mediation, no barrier, between what “leader” and “followers.”

Yet, we’ve seen this not only fail but become an embarrassment: in this same manner, the “presidential selfie” has potential, yet by its very nature resists any real content, or real application or utility. I was present at one of the events in St. Catharines where PM Trudeau visited, and though there was time for these brief interactions, they were more mob-like than anything, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Perhaps that’s not just the Sontagian dilemma of how photography invites projection, but also that in the essence these politicians – whether Nieto or even Trump – were empty and inviting us to fill them with whatever we liked, only to find that was a ploy, a con. To return to the idea put out by hooks, of the “product”, one must always – especially in politics, these mad days – practice caveat emptor / buyer beware. After all, there’s no warranty and though it might look good, as in the case of Peña Nieto’s record, it has been somewhat of a lemon. Or perhaps, as with the manufactured sales pitch (2 billion over five years), Peña Nieto can be said to be an impulse purchase that played upon disinformation and unethical salespeople, and now there is no returns policy in place, and still a large price to be paid.

If I return to the initial distaste and touch of anger I experienced when first visiting Cartagena’s work, the explanation may be found in the words of Neil Gaiman’s hustler, Wednesday: On the whole, I make my money from people who never know they’ve been taken, and who never complain, and who will frequently line up to be taken when I come back that way again.

A Presidential Guide to Selfies is on display in the VISA Gallery at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts until November 6th, 2018. The gallery hours are 1 – 5 PM, Tuesday through Saturday. The situation Alejandro Cartagena‘s work addresses, however, is ongoing, on our televisions and online, and in our regional, national and international discourse, as you read this. All images are courtesy the artist’s web site or media releases, or shot by the writer.


Tammy Jane Lepp: transformation & metamorphosis

At the last In The Soil (2018), Silver Spire United Church was the main site for Rhizomes, a variety of installations / performances / interventions by a diversity of artists. This not only was a very mindful and effective adaptation of the spaces within the church / centre by respective artists, but even while being guided to one installation or another, the lovely interior of the church was, in itself, an enchanting environment. One of the artists whose work was installed in the Silver Spire was Tammy Jane Lepp: her piece fe·cund was arguably the most seductive work in Rhizomes. This was something that insinuated you on several sensual levels (while talking to Tammy, in front of the work, I often “unzipped” the “casing” it was in, to put my face forward and breathe it in, for example).

This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered Lepps‘ work: at the previous In The Soil (2017), she, Joanne Ring, Kelsey Cheslock and Lisa Renee McKenzie had collaborated on an immersive installation in the side event space at Mahtay. Alternately seductive and playful while also somewhat corporeal and unsettling, Sojourn of Spectaculous Wunderkle Things had fluorescent components, found and hand made elements, and yet allowed for performers during ITS to take the stage and respond and modify the space with their own music / audio contributions. Personally, despite your intrepid #artcriticfromhell’s being “full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; at times, indeed, almost ridiculous— almost, at times, the Fool” (whoops, sorry, a bit of Prufrock there), I must also confess to being a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos (more so what others have done with it than Lovecraft himself). Thus, this installation appealed to me both in a positive recreation / reinterpretation of an immersive ecological space (I may or may not have been napping in one of the “alcoves” as ITS 2017 was intense) but also had an edge. This manifested at night, where the unearthly glow of the works fully “came to life” (reanimated, ahem, you might say).

Now, this was four artists (McKenzie’s work in ITS 2018 was something I hope you had the chance to encounter, as well), and collaboration is a compromise and a conversation (I have been known to say I only collaborate well when I’m in charge, ahem). However, when sitting cross legged inside the “greenhouse” of clear plastic and vinyl, filled with a variety of earthy elements that seemed to more so fill the confined space with scent than a physical occupation, this sense of evocation of emotion and concept returned to me.

Lepp’s sculpture, installations and wearable artworks have an organic quality that’s an essential aspect of her creative process. She employs an intuitive approach to her imaginative and eerie works,  preferring to allow pieces to evolve, collaboratively with the materials themselves, rather than having a defined plan as to the final outcome. Her works are emotionally evocative, and this originates in her process, which is often raw and unchallenged by any “finished” agenda.  This experiential, responsive methodology manifests in pieces (like fe·cund), that are more sensual than didactic, more about the physicality of the piece, and the corporeal nature of its creation. A poet as well as an artist, Lepp’s own words encapsulate the experience of her visual work: transformation, birth and rebirth, growth, metamorphosis and an abundance – perhaps an excess – of sensual cues.

A multidisciplinary artist and teacher based in St. Catharines, ON, Tammy Jane Lepp has exhibited extensively in the Niagara region since her graduation from the Art Centre of Central Technical School (Toronto).

One of the reasons I enjoy very much doing these ongoing artist features is that it facilitates my interest in what many artists are doing (this echoes in my hosting the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Image Makers Conversation. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is nosy, always wanting to know what artists are making / creating). I’ve spoken with Lepp on numerous occasions (in fact, at ITS 2018, we may, ahem, have held up the line at Rhizome and I was so excited and enamoured of  fe·cund that we had an animated conversation about it, with (the aforementioned) many delays of me unzipping the “greenhouse” and breathing deeply and with great satisfaction.




Ready Player Two, at NAC, is not one exhibition (in four chapters, you might say) but (at least) two. They’re not separate entities, but blend together, offering a progression from the Plate Glass Gallery (The Kitchen) to the Dennis Tourbin Space (The Rec Room) and finally the end point – the maturity, and I’ll revisit that term later – of the Showroom Gallery (The Comic Book Shop and The Arcade). This is appropriate, that the components sift one into the other. Brendan Lee Salish Tang and Sonny Assu’s works in Ready are often collaborative (literally and conceptually) but have aspects and characteristics unique to each (Tang’s Manga Ormolu 5.0-q or Assu’s Quantum Warp Theory are both lovely “signature” works). Many pieces (such as Broken Treaties) have facets showing both artist’s personal aesthetic, but also details displaying a shared creation.

The installation of the work, the nature of the NAC space, however, may engender an interaction with Ready Player Two different than intended. I doubt that’d bother Tang and Assu, as in their talk at the opening reception, a sense of playfulness and interactivity with viewers was clear. Before we step inside the gallery, you and I, and rest a moment on the Rec Room green couch amidst wood panelling and patterned carpet, with Memento Mori: VCR, Late-night Programming looping infinitely, comics (Alpha Flight!) and magazines that immerse you in a nostalgic bubble of youth, memory and sentiment, I proffer the curatorial statement: An art exhibit about the joys of gaming, sci-fi, and comics; About cultural identity, pop culture, and growing up a ‘geek’; Partly nostalgic for an adolescence spent living in the rec-rooms of the 1980s and 90s; Also humourous, imaginative, and executed with a great level of craft.

The previous incarnation of Ready Player Two was at The Reach Gallery, curated by Laura Schneider. More curatorial words: [the artists] combine elements from science fiction, comic book, and gaming cultures to consider how these forms alternately reinforce and transcend racial boundaries in youth culture. In their individual practices, Tang and Assu frequently negotiate the material and conceptual dynamics of culture and ethnicity. Informed by their mixed-race backgrounds and experiences of Canadian life in the 1980s and 1990s, for this exhibition the artists bring together found objects, selections from previous bodies of work, and new collaborative pieces to create immersive spaces that evoke the adolescent sanctuaries of their time: the basement, the arcade, and the comic book store.

This is a dense show, as multi faceted as its multidisciplinary and meticulous. I reserve the right to revisit Ready and talk about it in different ways, with different artworks, in the future. This multiplicity of potential interpretations is a mark of the excellence of Assu and Tang’s art. My initial response was to interpret the multiple spaces through a lens of experiences that impress themselves upon you and thus form you into the person – the man – you are. Assu, in his talk, spoke of a formative aspect of his being / practice that encapsulates this. To quote his bio: Sonny Assu (Liǥwildaʼx̱w of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations) was raised in North Delta, BC, over 250 km away from his home ancestral home on Vancouver Island. Having been raised as your everyday average suburbanite, it wasn’t until he was eight years old that he discovered his Liǥwildax̱w/Kwakwaka’wakw heritage. Later in life, this discovery would be the conceptual focal point that helped launch his unique art practice.

Hence the Kitchen painting by Assu (Doesn’t Look Like Anyone Lives Here. Let’s Live Here!) illustrated aspects of how terra nullius, this denial of what was here “before” 1867, the #Canada150 national imaginary, manifests in people, not just in pictures or places…

Nostalgia is most pervasive in The Rec Room. This can lead visitors to simply be swayed by the evocation of communal experiences, and happy, with rose coloured glasses looking backwards sentimentality. After all, I remember reading the Alpha Flight comics there, and the characters now seem so stilted and stereotyped, so token and flat…..but its an uncomfortable fact that Shaman and Talisman were the first Indigenous super heroes I read, and enjoyed. History is difficult, and complex, and it is not something we stand outside of, as its participatory as well as problematic.

The Showroom Gallery – ideally the end of your traverse from outside to the Tourbin space – is the “art” of the exhibition, but this doesn’t mean its any less “playful”, simply that its “mature”, to revisit that loaded term. Standing in Shop or Arcade, you see the adults that were formed by the experiences in the other spaces, and you experience an aspect of how there is no point when “now” begins and “then” ends, in our personal – and public – (his)stories.

I could talk about each of the many pieces back here, as a locus of interpretation of Ready Player Two, but the pieces that pulled me in aesthetically, and then in their details and considered execution held me, are by Assu. These works face each other across the gallery space. Giant Sized Spectacular #1, #3, #6, #7, #9, #10, #11 and #12 (all 2017, all acrylic, ink and comic book pages) and a series along the back wall (including We All Must Deal With the Monster Within, You have betrayed the dream and SNIKT, also all 2017, also painted “samples” of comic book pages on panel).

Pop culture has undergone a radical repositioning in the “proper” art world in recent decades (I can remember being challenged for citing Gaiman’s Sandman series, in post grad writing, yet two years later academics were falling all over themselves to “discourse” about Buffy the Vampire Slayer – the best TV series, ever, perhaps, but its besmirching to see the weather vane acolytes of academia try to “own” something they previously dismissed…).

In light of this, with Spectacular, I was reminded of one of the most powerful stories I ever read – in any media: the original (1981) X Men two-issue Days of Future Past, which was nowhere near as “sanitized” as cinematic versions. It’s a time travel story (taking place in 1980 / 2014, and plays upon that standard trope of time travel in sci fi – do you prevent the future, or do you contribute to the inevitable?) but what makes it relevant here is that it took the idea of genocide – that mutants like the X Men are hated simply for existing, and that many want to see them eradicated in a “final solution” – further than ever. A classic scene is the adult Kate Pryde walking through the concentration camp, passing graves of “classic” Marvel superheroes (i.e. Fantastic Four and Spider Man). Several years later, the X Men graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, an even more powerful and controversial take on Mutant Genocide appeared: featuring religious fanatic convinced he does the “Lord’s” work by wiping out all mutants, and he eagerly embraces a bloody means to “justify” his ends. (That story begins with the murder of two Mutant children, bodies hung in swing sets as warnings: shades of Emmett Till, perhaps…)

I’ll add a dangerous side note. In God Loves, Man Kills, one of the X Men gets into a fistfight with a human (both teenagers, just out for an evening, no superhero drama here) as the human calls her a “Mutie Lover.” Kitty Pryde is the angry Mutant teen. When her friend, Stevie, a human friend / teacher, tells her “they’re only words, child”, Kitty screams at her African American friend: “What if he’d called me a n**ger Lover, Stevie, would they be “just words” then?”

It’s unflinchingly raw and cuts to truth brooking no facade of gentility. Back to “reality”: a meme in social media has been asking, in light of the John A. MacDonald statue removal, where would you like the statue of the man who tried to massacre your grandmother installed? In light of the ongoing institutional (intentional?) failures of the TRC, of MMIW, of the Canadian Catholic Church getting a pass on their part in “Rez Schools”, one can understand why an Indigenous artist and activist like Assu would find the X Men so relevant. Oh, did I offend you? Good, it means you’re paying attention. Its easier to see the truth of our reality through a story than what is in front of us…

Oh, your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is #sorrynotsorry: I talk “too much politics” and not enough “art” (as a talent free performance artist once whined at me).

There’s also an undercurrent of masculine identity here: formative and playful, but also that idea that, instead of no longer being a child and “putting away childish things”, to examine them for the lessons learned, or ideas proliferated that may have been exposed as propaganda. Two male artists of colour examining the tools and toys of masculinity is one way to approach Ready Player Two, and is what I mean when I say I plan to revisit and consider other works not discussed here, at a later date. Thankfully, Ready is open until December.

Assu’s painted collages are formal contrasts between the strength and solidity of his “referencing” the stories that are smaller, delicate, yet vivid in a different way from his painted layering. Palimpsest – where the “original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain” – isn’t new, but here Assu employs this, enhancing and enriching through combination the “surface” and the “ground.” The delicate blues, the gentle pinks, seem almost too “soft” for what’s being shown. In this instance, the punctilious nature of both artists is a means to an idea. (I offer an apology to Brendan Tang, one of my favourite artists, for not focusing as much on the exquisite works like Manga Ormolu Prototype 1 & 2. A work recently on display at Rodman Hall even reminded a Brock official that RHAC is more than they assume, ahem – but Ready Player Two has so much, too much, and I’m not disingenuous when I say I may revisit it, like I’ve done with Up Close and In Motion at RHAC).

Ready Player Two is almost too much, to be honest. Perhaps that’s why the couch of Rec Room is attractive, as you can pause and return to examine the determining, shaping stories alluded to in Kitchen (In Lieu of Expansion and Fear I choose to Take my Chances and Roll the Dice by Tang) or explore the implications of toys and what they teach us (G.I. PoC, in the Shop, also by Tang). Both artists have extensive web sites (Tang’s is here, Assu’s here), and these can only assist in making sure that the numerous works are considered as fully as they deserve.

This exhibition is at NAC until December 7th, 2018.