Namita Gupta Wiggers is a writer, curator, and educator based in Portland, Oregon. She is the director and cofounder of Critical Craft Forum, an online and onsite platform for exchange (Facebook group, @critcraftforum, www.criticalcraftforum.com). Wiggers teaches in MFA Applied Craft + Design, coadministered by Oregon College of Art and Craft and Pacific Northwest College of Art. From 2004–2014, she served as the director and chief curator for the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland, Oregon. She contributes to online and in-print journals, books, and catalogs, and serves as the exhibition reviews editor for The Journal of Modern Craft and on the editorial board of Garland. Current projects include: Across the Table, Across the Land with Michael Strand for the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, and forthcoming exhibitions for the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, Seattle, Washington, and the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, Miami, Florida.
In the past week, I witnessed Che Guevara’s face on a hand-painted locker at my son’s middle school, stenciled on a derelict building, printed on a wine bottle label, and silkscreened on organic cotton onesies. Unmoored from its original context, Alberto Korda’s original black-and-white photograph of Che Guevara is obscured in a morass of commercialism: the idea of revolution reduced to a branding platform. It is in this kind of space, between the individual and the idea, that Greetings from Mexico or Souvenirs from the Border, 2013, by American self-described “materialsmith” Kerianne Quick, operates.
Quick’s work bridges the personal and public. While it was on display at Velvet da Vinci gallery in San Francisco, gallery owner Mike Holmes’s neighbor entered the space and recognized a face on a fob. “This,” she explained, “is the man who killed my brother.” The artist provides a thorough explanation of the site-responsive piece, including a list of the 37 men, labeled with Cartel affiliations, who are wanted dead or alive by the Mexican government for crimes in the Drug Wars. The images used are public record; Quick first found them on a poster in a local post office while vacationing in Mexico, then sourced the actual images from the Associated Press. For Holmes’s neighbor, Quick’s own response to this list of wanted men transforms in a brief moment. The list revealed that the man was dead. “Yes,” the neighbor explained, “my father killed him.”
Shifting focus to reception from inception, the project begs consideration of who might purchase the work, and for what purpose. Pieces are sold individually, suggesting that some could be collected more than others. Would the fobs be perceived as relics of a revolutionary leader who protected a village, or as a head-on-a-stake of a terrorist who destroyed lives and disrupted international governmental systems? Would Cartel cameos be collected like baseball cards, with new project-specific value systems determined by criteria such as each man’s status as a fugitive, captured, or killed?
Located in the gallery or museum, the depth of Quick’s carefully researched project is masked by the work’s disarming casualness. Taken at “face value,” the project subverts multiple systems to which the artist responds, employing banal simplicity to entice visitor engagement. Abstracted from the original contexts of commerce, narrative content, borders, and the conflict itself, the work’s targeted audience is a specific category of cultural tourist: collectors. The project exemplifies the advantages of working in a privileged academic space where social commentary poses little risk of reprisal. Unlike Quick’s insertions in 2009, when she photographed her handmade leather purses with images of laboring women in stalls on the US side of the border, Greetings from Mexico is contingent on the safe haven of an art context.
Quick’s project is unquestionably timely and important. In February 2014, US and Mexican law enforcement officials captured Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, head of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, a man sought after for 13 years. Guzman is known for keeping the peace in Mazatlán and for stewing his enemies alive (see for example this article). Within the pristine preserve of the white cube, Guzman shifts from image to collectible object—but only sometimes between specter and person. Quick offers what she describes as a “glimpse of reality,” which is at its most effective in uncanny encounters with a man, woman, or child affected by the day-to-day realities of the Drug Wars. It is in these moments that the thinking and making behind the work are reified in a shift from social commentary to social engagement.
Greetings from Mexico is on view at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft until September 7, 2014, as part of La Frontera exhibition.