Photo by Mariano HernndezJos Garca Cordero's "Situaciones Humanas (Human Conditions)" at the Museum of Latin American Art wants you to know there's more to the Caribbean than Tom Cruise in an open-air bar on white-sand shores, juggling rum bottles and scoring with hot blond heiresses. (I recently saw Cocktail on TV, and it wasn't quite as good as it had been when I was 15. In fact, it may have had the most odious message to hit a movie screen since Birth of a Nationsexied up the Klan. Who knew?) You won't see palm trees or blue waters so clear you can see your piggies or happy darkies being all hearty and picturesque and discomfitingly Aunt Jemima-like, entreating you to come down to Jamaica. Nor does Garca Cordero offer you honey-colored maidens lying ripe and heavy-lidded in bowers of lilies or Magical Realist folk so free they swoop through the air over bright-hued pastel shacks. His Caribbean—particularly his native Dominican Republic—is a place of thorns, hellfire and slabs of dead, red meat. It's a place where humans are sad-eyed dogs.
It's potent, savage work, and it inspired MoLAA's Shifra Goldman to write a superb catalog invoking not just Angela Davis and the Black Panthers (who "were prime victims" of the U.S. government) but also the scurrilousness of the death penalty and the incarceration of Mumia Abu-Jamal. It talks of anti-capitalism, "corporate manipulation of the means of communication" and the "ruthless" Henry Kissinger. I don't think I've ever seen a museum catalog essay so monolithically, unapologetically leftist; this is a business in which politics is mostly hemming and hawing and garbled academic cant, where truth might lie undiscovered for eternity. Goldman's essay is smashing.
I'm also not sure it's exactly what Garca Cordero had in mind. Sure, he's against oppression (he even explicitly lambastes the death penalty) and dictatorships, but forsooth! He includes Castro in that league! Whether you do or not, Fidel-baiting isn't generally a component of leftie dogma.
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Garca Cordero's works are grand canvases—epic in size, masterly in detail and technique. They present the happy islands (where U.S.-made dictators held sway for the better part of the century, and in some cases still do) as places of grim shadow and death. Tree limbs are as gnarled and threatening as in a Sam Raimi flick. Heaps of fish heads stare at you from beneath storm-swept skies. Worms hang from hooks, dozens of them, all gifted with eyes and mouths like the friendly sock worms on Sesame Street. Piles of grinning dentures form Towers of Babel, missing only Nazis yanking out gold crowns. Often his works are bathed in hellish reds. When they're not—when the sky is indeed pure, paradisiacal blue—they're still presenting creepy horrors for your delectation. Want vivid, tropical colors, the kind so popular with sock-and-sandal-wearing tourists? Here is Still Life: Popa Beach House Interior II. A grand table is laid with an opulent feast, the food crowded together in a taunt to hunger everywhere. Beyond it, through an unscreened window, lies the blue sea, beautiful and calm. But the table, crammed with food, is somehow disgusting. It's nothing graphic; it isn't as if it's laden with snakes or worms or monkey brains. There's just a sense of unease, of queasiness. Perhaps it's the staring fish heads, or the occasional octopus tentacle. But even the fruits—a persimmon, perhaps a pomegranate—give off a vibe of sliced-open organ.
Garca Cordero's self-portraits are smaller than his dramatic landscapes, which take up entire walls with claustrophobic forests of ashen, thorny trunks. But though more modest in scope, they're equally disturbing. How about Bound by Meat, in which Garca Cordero is locked in a straitjacket of raw, bulging flesh, standing on a tray of hot coals? He turns resentful eyes to the viewer, while he heaps upon himself as much pain and degradation as Frida Kahlo used to. Or Self-portrait as Neuro-Dog, in which his face is that of a skinned animal, its eyes green and sad, deep yet glassy. His head is bifurcated like the lobes of a brain, and he stands before a background of sooty flame. It's the dog—kicked and whimpering, its head hung low—with which Garca Cordero identifies not just himself, but all of us. Boat People IVshows white dogs packed onto a boat like Irish into steerage while sharks prowl the bloody waters around them. Want a picture of a puppy being cuddled and loved? Look elsewhere. These are dogs—we are dogs—that would turn up in stew.
Everything is malo in Garca Cordero's Caribbean, and I approve. I like butterflies and flowers and pretty as much as the next girl, but there's always a place in my heart for bloody meat and dangling worms. I wonder what it would take, though, to put a butterfly or a flower in Garca Cordero's heart—or, barring that, on his easel.
"Situaciones Humanas (Human Conditions)" at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-1689; www.molaa.com. Open Tues.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Through July 21. $5; students/seniors, $3; members/children under 12, free.