An Essay by Arnold McBay
Understanding the modern urban experience. A critical essay by Arnold J. McBay on the work of La Raza Group for the exhibition of Urban Realities 1994.
On the post-cold war continent of North America live millions of relieved individuals who can all sleep soundly; happy in knowing that a strange set of circumstances that could trigger the end of the planet will not occur. Yet increasingly in these times we are witnessing the birth of a new era with its own uncertainties and fears. To live in an urban setting today is to lock ones' doors, to warn children that they should not talk to strangers; it is a place where women should not venture into secluded places alone, day or night. One only needs to turn on the television for confirmation, of an age in paranoia, anger, violence and confusion.
The works of art that form the exhibition "Urban Realities" are an attempt to take stock of the contemporary urban experience. They are also a set of observations posing more questions than answers. In this body of work the La Raza Group (Francis Caprani, Arnold McBay, Scott MacLeod and Gerald Pedros) range freely through contemporary urban problems, grappling with moral, political, personal and social issues using a diverse set of pictorial strategies all within the context of painting.
The pictorial strategies employed by the La Raza Group are complex and varied. The strongest continuum in this work has been their history of creating issue-based works incorporating bold graffiti-like images; within this approach the human figure has occupied a significant position as a vehicle for observation and expression. Earlier works were often displayed in highly public locations, unlike much issue-oriented art of the past few decades that has isolated itself in the white temple spaces of modern art galleries. Unsatisfied with their work being isolated in sparsely visited galleries the La Raza Group took their works directly to the public displaying their work off bridges, and in store fronts, resulting in a large-scale pictorial strategy related to graffiti and billboards
In some cases the work in this exhibit is subtle, even poignant, and in other instances it is brutal, direct and intimidating. Underpinning this is a creative strategy that incorporates a painterly approach that is emotional based and a contrasting conceptual strategy using statistics and text. The balance between the emotional and logical components of expression provides for work that has depth, substance and felling.
The use of textual information is nothing new to La Raza Group. However, its use in the context of being painted directly on the surface of a work is unique here. Before this body of work the La Raza Group would often utilize found text bits in the form of collage, they would then adhere these pieces of cultural flotsam and jetsam to the surface of their works. More often the text that was part of these pieces of collage served as a supporting element to the painting, functioning as part of an aesthetic strategy. The most significant effect of their earlier use of text and collage was that the isolated pieces of information served as a subtle reflection of how information and media have bombarded the individual in the modern era. These collage elements have now evolved into a much more significant part of the painting and it's message.
As all the members of the La Raza Group reside in urban areas of Canada , these themes explored throughout this work are in many cases very close to their own lives. They are also often very well filtered through the lens of the media. In particular the nature of violence and its realities is a topic that the La Raza Group have addresses many times throughout their existence.
The work entitled "Rap's a nice present" is probably the most direct work in the exhibition. The young street tough stands relaxed and confident behind his sunglasses. He is the stereo-typical image who figures so greatly in much of the media reporting of hand gun crimes involving gangs. With the application of the flag they clearly indicate this young man as a product of society (no doubt the presence of the American flag in this work also alludes to the violent history of the United States ). The quote "Rap's a nice present" is a sardonic reference to the fact that broader societal phenomena or "fads" tend to swallow up and often shape individuals; the ironic pun refers to the notion of wrapping one's self in the flag. This young man has wrapped himself with another form of flag. In this work the urban experience is one in which the individual is often lost in the morass of larger societal power structures and phenomena.
The works titled "Shooting gallery -- line of fire" and "Operation gun control" expose the escalating problems with violence and gun-control. In both works the use of statistics is a stark reminder quantifying the toll of firearm violence in dollars and human lives. This information is presented to us within a borders field not unlike an advertisement on television or perhaps a bill-board.
On the surface both of these works focus on the victims, in each case they are faceless or anonymous. Yet these faceless victims seem less significant than blackened blocks of statistics, tragically these individuals are shown to be nothing more than statistics. These works beg the viewer to look beyond the victim's plight and consider these ugly questions...who is responsible for this violence?...and why is this happening?
In "Shooting gallery -- line of fire" the everyday people on a firing range allude to the irony of people deriving pleasure from the firing of weapons that can and often eventually do horrible damage to people. Are these people responsible for "gun-play" in our society? It is likely that the La Raza Group are more likely alluding to the fact that the history of humans and weapons is a very long one and that possibly the problem of dealing with gun-control is bigger and more complex than we can hope to imagine.
The most disturbing element of this work is the use of s decorative wall-paper motif in the background. Are they hinting at the nature of violence being ingrained in our species, with its roots in the home, or are they pointing to violence as a sadly everyday event as common and recurrent as our wall-paper? If we were to take this work literally the modern urban experience is one in which life is cheap and very temporal.
The interest in domestic issues surfaces in the work entitled "Love don't live here anymore." Unlike the direct media-packet approach of these works previously discussed, this work presents the viewer with an image incorporating free-floating imagery. Depicted is an abandoned building whose blackened doorways and windows stare out with a sense of emptiness. The building appears to offer no sense of security or shelter, and yet it is important to remember that millions of people live in neighbourhoods full of these types of structures, sometimes they are even occupied. Floating around number of figures. The largest of these appears to be a black woman, and at the bottom are two Caucasian children, the one seemingly dressed in clothing that might have been worn near the turn of the century.
It is easy to forget that urban locations that have become ghettos have a history that reaches past their present sorry state of poverty; the little children in the lower section of the work float ghost-like as reminders of the buildings past, it is this sense of loss that the La Raza Group are pointing to. The powerful poetic statement in this work is the sad contrast between the experience of those who occupied these places in the past and those who now live in these run-down environments. Unlike most artists that have addressed the issues of urban decay the La Raza Group appear to be more interested in the broader picture of this issue. There is no outrage or moralizing, no urgent cry for action in this work of art, only a sense of emptiness, desolation and timelessness.
The dominant tone of this body of work is one of helplessness, s a sense that there are powers at work in our lives that are beyond our control. Consider the works "Pimp and Purse" and "Solicitation." Each of these works features a grouping of individuals within a tightly composed picture field. The figures occupy almost the entire surface of the canvases (the only reference to location being some decorative ironwork in indicating a street scene). This figural weight is fitting, considering that the works address the sexual desires of humanity, within the context of probably the oldest of all urban problems...prostitution.
As has been consistent with this body of work the La Raza Group do not attempt to grapple with the morality of prostitution. The most notable element of all the figures is the variety of expressions of these characters that act out one of the oldest of all human dramas, that of desire. The women in both panels stand aloof and confident waiting for their next customer, the males all appear uncomfortable, almost embarrassed. One male casts his gaze to the ground shamefully, another glances longingly, yet uncomfortably at the woman in the panel beside him, another gazes out from the painting as if he expects to be caught in his act of shame.
Although the women appear to be confident they are no doubt slaves to the earning power of their profession and the ego based sense of control of their position evident in their expressions. The men as well are victims, preyed upon by animal desires that according to most organized religion are sinful and disgusting unless channeled towards procreation.
The most interesting point apparent in this work is that the La Raza Group, do not perceive prostitution to be simply an urban problem as so many people do. They perceive it to be a human phenomenon that will occur wherever humans assemble. Both the men and women are victims of the most complex yet most simple of all human problems. Cursed by consciousness humans have attempted to place the simple animal-based reality of procreation within the context of a moral frame work, The problem pointed to here is that both men and women are seen as victims of animal desire and the external power structure in society (law, organized religion) that insist on regulating one of the most spontaneous of all human acts.
In conclusion how are we to understand this body of work? How does it reflect on the contemporary urban experience? How does it reflect upon ourselves? One senses paranoia, helplessness, confusion and a yearning for understanding; clearly the La Raza Group have far more questions than answers.
It would seem that this body of work serves to highlight and expose the realities of the modern urban experience. For the La Raza group there are no judgments or conclusions to be made about the problems they have explored here. The work is centered firmly on gaining an understanding of why the world is the way it is. Only by exposing reality will we understand the problem of modern society, and only then might change be possible for without understanding there can be no change. There is no moralizing, there is no wishing for a better future when violence will no longer exist there is only observation, these works of art are sign-posts on the twentieth century highway of existence.