June, 2008, Seph Rodney on Whitney Biennial artist Daniel Joseph Martinez

Daniel Joseph Martinez, Divine Violence, 2007 (installation view, The Project, New York). Automotive paint on wood
panel, dimensions variable, courtesy Whitney Biennial

I sat down to speak with Daniel Joseph Martinez a few months ago. I suggested that we talk about the convergence with two of his past students in the Whitney Biennial this year. We spoke first in general terms about his work, and if you have spoken with him or read interviews of him, the phrases will be familiar “. . . fairly anomalistic; interested in art as a different dimensional space; . . . to bring as complicated a discourse as possible forward; . . . making people as uncomfortable as possible; I’m interested in something not quantifiable by the normal means.” This is an easy conversation for the both of us. Having been his student I still maintain a great deal of fondness and profound respect for him, not the least because Daniel operates at a certain speed and wavelength with which I correspond—when we talk it feels like I’ve gone from dial-up, slipped into the stream of broadband. When we turn to the subject of the current work in the Whitney the phrases spiral towards the more specific and more theoretical: “It’s an obvious strategy; . . . grafting onto art history things that are relevant now, or made so by the level of crisis; . . . Benjamin’s essay; . . . at one point required, necessary and justified, more applicable today; . . . combined with a Freudian view; . . . Eros versus the death drive; . . . we are the species that colonizes and consumes; . . . why is the death drive dismissed?” He goes on to say that he would like to make a thousand paintings, all purporting to represent a group that professes the willingness to use violence or aggression by any means to fulfill their political ideology. The word that begs to come to mind is “terrorist”, but Daniel avoids making that mechanical move himself. Instead, he incites the viewer towards an instinctual response and then gleaning information from this frisson, utilizes this data to mount the polemic. His use of a topical, provocative issue is only a feint—a feint within a feint. Yet, the construction of the strategy itself is compelling.

To look at the paintings assembled in his Divine Violence piece at the Biennial, I am reminded of the interior of a cathedral, clean and gold and rising from the floor in Kyries of zealous repetition. The room goes beyond immaculate; it is devoted. It pronounces the names of these organizations in black ink on a gold background without irony or cynicism. I’m reminded of Christopher Hitchens at the London Hay Festival in his rebuke of religious zealotry: He quotes Anthony Grayling in drawing a distinction between the analytical method of humanist materialism, that he argues is based on skepticism, and the world view of a religious person who operates on belief. No wars, Hitchens says, are fought over theories in biology or astrophysics precisely because the community that trades in them takes nothing on faith. Neither does Daniel, excepting that he believes utterly in the power of the trope, the metaphorical razor drawn across the eye, that might spill out that which will not be volunteered.

I now realize this in Daniel’s work, having scrutinized it over the years: he has always and will always be allied to the philosophical and theoretical side in his aesthetic examinations, but wields the tools at his disposal, utilizes the platform of his interrogations like a zealot, unremitting and uninterested in surrender. I imagine that he would acknowledge this, that he is not blind to his own limitations. Though the work from a distance seems devoid of judgment, the uniformity with which the names of disparate groups such as the KGB and the Jewish Defense League, along with Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade are displayed essentially politically levels them. They are also uniform in another key aspect: their essentialism. Daniel acknowledges the mistakes of their thinking when says to me that each of these groups fails in their politics due to their essentialism. They cannot get past a rigorous, doctrinaire version of “truth, good, god, honesty, us”. For him, this is failure. To lack the ability and good sense to float like a signifier from sense to sense, medium to medium, topic to topic, is to already consign oneself to making the same motions over and over, only feinting, only fading into art history. Rather, the questions he wants to raise and challenges he means to offer change their clothing over the years, but—and here’s the heart—he is still bent on infiltration. He imagines a “they” that must be confronted, and he seeks to confront them. However, his philosophy is so rigorous that he implicates himself in that construction so that his “us” is always being confronted as well—tested, confronted, shoved and interrogated. And the “I” within receives no less intense treatment. It is this core belief that animates his drive to make work in which there are razors in both hands while his mouth opens in laughter (the piece, To Make a Blind Man Murder for the Things He’s Seen, at The Project in Los Angeles).

It is Daniel’s second showing at the Whitney Biennial and this year he is joined by a bevy of other Chicano artists from the west coast. It is in fact the largest such showing in the history of the Biennial. But it is even more extraordinary that he would be flanked by two former students, Mario Ybarra and Ruben Ochoa. Mario and Ruben do share his ethnic heritage though perhaps not his uncompromising positioning of his work in regards to that heritage. It is also remarkable that this showing avoids the trite dramatic arc of students trying to depose the teacher, playing out the artistic version of the Freudian/Lacanian masculine tragedy in which the father must succumb to be deposed for the child/son to enter the Real. Or more to the point: I recall going to the MoMA for the great, 21-gun salute of a show for Egon Schiele many years ago. It was exhaustive, a show that demonstrated Schiele as improbably masterful. One critical canvas, prominently displayed, was his portrait with his former teacher Gustav Klimt. In it he has wrapped himself up in a cloak he shares with his equally well regarded teacher. In the portrait Schiele has taken away Klimt’s eyes in a way that seems forlorn and vindictive. No, this show entails a different kind of legacy or kinship; one that though mediated by a different political imagination, may not be ameliorated, though refracted by a different material vocabulary, may be just as incandescent.

Daniel says “I could not be happier or prouder or more honored to be with them”, and then he says aside from them being his students and sharing the same ethnicity, but “past that there is no connection”. Still, the other connections which he does not so readily name make a difference to him. He recalls taking on a role a bit beyond the purview of teacher with Mario. He says that when Mario first came to U.C. Irvine he needed Daniel to explain to his parents what he was going to school for and why it was important to do a terminal master’s degree in studio art. Daniel went to his house. He sat down with Mario’s parents and that fall Mario was enrolled at UCI. Though the personal is meaningful to Daniel, the pedagogical and the intellectual receive more attention from within and without because they are terrains on which wars are to be fought.
I remember in the year I arrived at UCI that Daniel described to me the way he ran the studio art graduate program as boot camp. That wasn’t prideful exaggeration. In that first semester I felt I had walked into a minefield of bruised egos, hushed stories and a pot of anger boiling for a while behind the seminars and critique sessions. I didn’t find out until much later that one graduate student had taken exception to Daniel’s harsher teaching style and complained to the university authorities about him. I don’t know what fell out of that, but I imagine that Daniel hardly shrunk from that fight. He may have come out of it being more careful, more circumspect, but hardly any less driven and intense and demanding. “This is the art world” he says and laughs that obliterating laugh that at once sounds like joy and dismissal.

But what are the set of politics at stake for the generation that inherited Haring and Gonzalez-Torres, Kruger and Piper, Asher and Burden, who might seem at this point if not outdated, then at least providing the argument for a negation against which a succeeding generation must break their teeth? Daniel’s own infamous first appearance at the Whitney used the bludgeon of identity to partition a world that smugly and subtly assumed a macro-identity of Whitney-Biennial-artist, which his piece put on blast. Don’t subsume us he insists. Don’t colonize me with my own complicity. But in thinking about the idea of legacy I want to ask Mario and Ruben how they see themselves and their work, especially since there don’t seem to be these sorts of gestures from these young practitioners. Their politics seem to be their own without the necessity of manifesto or public break with a past that they may recognize is not entirely behind them.

For Mario, The Scarface Museum, a work that refers to his own past. Acting as a personal tribute to the road not taken, it is a fresh way of asserting that these personal connections mean more than just a facile racial identification or cultural classifying. Mario’s work in the biennial comes right out of the fraying of a collective fabric. A previous version of his work—this one for the UC Irvine alumni show—Mario used a collection of stuff from a childhood friend. It was this childhood friend, Angel, who Mario had witnessed being dragged away from his house in handcuffs under the duress of FBI and ATF agents one bright morning. Mario tells me that he had to go over to house of Angel’s mother to let her know that he had been arrested. The similarities between that story and the constant filmic retelling of the American dream are obvious. What more this piece does is feed this dream (which is the stuff of fantasy and movies and a machine of exoticizing rhythm and romance) through the personal and then feed it again through the memorabilia and tchotchkes and thus creates an updated momento mori and memorial to a friend. It is as if the immense, hyper-desiring figure of Al Pacino’s gangster is both a reminder of the potential of a certain kind of death (and life) and a way of paying tribute to the memory of someone who was close. As Mario says “It could easily have been me”. The immense feeling requires a monumental story and character to contain it. When he did another show, this one a performance on South Beach, he read from the script for Scarface, recalling that the main character was named Angel as well.

 Daniel Joseph Martinez

Mario tells me the room in the armory where they chose to show his work was an opportune space in that it could bring to the forefront more subaltern aspects of the piece. The Veteran’s Room has paintings and glass vitrines that memorialize a very different kind of war at sea. Part of the story of Scarface’s hero is Castro’s release of prisoners and the mentally ill into Mariel Harbor. When Pacino’s Angel says, “I am a political refugee” he tries to claim a status above the current one he possesses, one that would leave him locked in an economic and cultural position directly correlated to his political one. Mario says that there are undocumented wars and marginal wars ongoing in Latin American immigrant history and Chicano history as well, ways in which people fought for acceptance, fought for admission, fought for a certain kind of success and a certain idea of family. To recontextualize a Latin world view in the here and now and relate it to the concrete situation of a lived life makes for a project that operates on several levels at once. The iconography and music connect them. The constant soundtrack of 70s salsa and soul music, just above the level of whispering, places us in that Latin world in which we can encounter hero and antihero in the same person. The heroic is reduced to a figurine with its contorted face, and blood-spattered body on the verge of gunning down the immigrant myth that acceptance and admittance are inevitable and worth it for both parties. Mario makes a case for reading the cultural case studies that fashion our myths right through the popular culture that is often accused of dumbing them down, making them less truthful or pertinent. It may be that the most pertinent versions of Angel (and Los Angeles, the city of Angels) are right there, plastered on the poster that is everywhere we look.

In talking with Ruben, I get the answer to the typical question of the concern at the heart of the work that it is “the annihilation of humanity through the demarcation of space designated by geographic and built boundaries”. Besides the boilerplate character of the answer (though very smart boilerplate I have to add) I am hit with the realization that this reminds me very much of a Daniel Joseph Martinez statement: replete with prepositional phrases and descriptive clauses that delimit the draconian heart of the initial assertion—not to blunt it, but to make it more specific and therefore directed. I suppose that this sort of rhetoric shows up in many other places besides Daniel’s seminars but the similarity is, I imagine, not only coincidental. Ruben says that his work, An Ideal Disjuncture, is more than a critique of gentrification, and I would agree. It’s more than that and less: that it seems taken with the materials and their recontextualization within the gallery format seems besides the point. If these were large building blocks, easily manipulated by the sole figure, I can imagine them a child’s upended legos, mashed together, melted, sawed in quarters, spliced and darned and punctured to see what other formations are possible and whether they can be lived with. Ruben insists “the work’s intentions are to raise questions more than aligning itself with one position but to question either position. Accountability becomes blurred and complicated. . .” he is more honest I think when he says “other interests within my practice are contending with space . . .” And here there is an easy parallel drawn to the man who once put in a piece “In the house of a rich man, the only place to spit is in his face”.

I am drawn back to the Bible and the story of Samson. I think about the images I saw as a child, of the man, almost completely defeated, his chopped-up head hung to his chest and his arms hung with irons. In the picture I can recall from a story book, he is held between two pillars and with his last speck of energy, the famed might that could not be bested; he scrapes together anger and indignation and turns that speck into thunder and brings the house down with his hands. Ruben’s work reads like the aftermath of that contention, perhaps with space, perhaps with time, with landed gentry, with a set of politics that he inherited. I can guess at the reasons and causes of contention, but given the power of the signifier, most likely his audience will suffice with the suggestion of upheaval, the great roiling battle that has happened already and to which the piece bears witness. But this is too easy. Truthfully, the work is materially cast in its very character: the urban, the city, the metropolis, with all it implies about the confabulation of concrete and flesh. There has always been the main question raised by the very sophistication of urban civilization and its complementary tools and effects: Is this good for us? Is this the way we should live? Especially since we have turned the corner this past year and more people now live in cities than live outside of them, the question is more pertinent. Is this how we want to live? Something twisting underneath the city suggests some other forms of life, to which Ruben bears witness, in a most self-effacing way.

Daniel has always been a kind of witness, though not a reliable one—that is, the narrative voice in his work often changes tact, perhaps to keep a certain currency. His work of a few years ago, the reproductions of the iconic photographs, the shooting of the suspected Viet Cong agent for example, has him taking the very acts of violence and giving the simulacra as if to say: Here. You want it? Here you go. Have your fill. Daniel’s legacy is this incessant referencing of aesthetic history, along with a conceptual topicality, but also this willingness to contend, to stand at the ready to fight. It has been pointed out to me that work such as his—and you only have to think of his first invitation to the Biennial—this form of confrontation backs people into somewhat unimaginative corners. And this, though not the harshest, but is perhaps an honest critique of Daniel’s work is that its past political bluntness shoves the viewer into a corner where the choices for absorption of the work often are polarized and carry with them the charge of indictment. Or put another way, everything looks like a nail when you have a hammer in your hands. Truthfully, he is an intellect astoundingly facile at absorbing and processing new conceptual frameworks and rhetoric. Unlike many of his age or position, he has not stopped learning and looking at his own intellectual borders again and again, moving them to absorb new populations. But this is always it seems in the service of prodding, poking, shoving, forcing an uncomfortable dilemma down the throat until its digested, as unpleasant a taste as it may be. Perhaps that incites the fight or flight response in viewers. Perhaps it is as someone else has said that adrenaline is the worst drug in the world, because it makes us act too bluntly, on instinctual fear, anger or panic and the space of reflection shrinks to vanishing. But I am also persuaded that he keeps us honest. It is his consistency of political position that is a very valuable part of his practice.

I am reminded of how my own vocabulary changed after spending two years at Irvine with him. I was speaking to an LA artist, a painter, who I had a tangential association with through a close friend of mine. In the process of saying something else I said something about aesthetic production, meaning the whole range of activities we often just call art. She said “what did you say?” I repeated it and she responded “No one I know talks that way” I replied, “Well, that’s what it is,” but lacking the conviction in the moment that I was right, taking the hint that she was calling me pretentious. But I had been to the well and seen Daniel take a classroom full of diverse intelligences, perspectives trying to claw our way through the thicket of signifiers of a piece up for discussion, and let us slowly, inevitably lose our way. But hew would lay down a trail of breadcrumbs to follow back, a small question or comment here and there, a tightening up of some reference, a refusal of an easy cliché. Then he would turn on us and pose a question like: So given these set of functions of the work operating at several levels of connection to {cultural edifices, a set of inherited politics, aesthetic traditions}, how might we construct an argument that would create a framework that might deconstruct the {methods of rendering, the conceptual apparatus, the personal narrative} that are implied by its presence? My head would swim, and then we would break and walk out into the clear air and thought about how little I knew and how that might indeed be a good thing since it meant I would have the room to, could absorb the forms of knowledge that he seemed to have. How to argue for the work was always the salient point for us that first year. That Mario and Ruben are articulate about their work attest to their similar conviction. Daniel has insisted on a level of sophistication, not a level of political loyalty or aesthetic mimicry.

Here is a truth Daniel might assert: We are living in a culture that has failed. It has failed miserably in the promises it made to itself concerning the consequences of even the basic skeletal apparatus of democratic institutions. It has failed to bring together the human collective in a community that is mutually beneficial and not bent of destroying the self, the environment and others. It has failed to achieve the institutionalization of the barest moral and ethical conclusions arrived at centuries ago–despite fabulous wealth and constant critique. This profound failure means that several of us get up everyday and are not sure why we continue to continue and it is the process of inertial drift that Daniel loves to highlight and bring to attention. The question of how aesthetic production may address the failure haunts. In a poster he made up for the San Juan Triennial he writes “This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse” as if to ask when we might notice our odious shortcomings—if not in death, when we should spend some time in thought, then at what moments? How much of our thinking is only ritualized habit? I imagine that Daniel might like to pose another question like “What if we just started again from scratch?”.

By contrast Mario and Ruben are hopeful, or at least absorbed by the possibilities of play and personal narrative outside of a set of politics that seek to confront and dismantle the myths of western civilization. Neither is trying to discover today’s terrorist in yesterday’s barbarian. Another truth: That they find and secure a different mode of practice suggests something about the time in which they live, their influences and the elasticity of their imaginations. Daniel tells me that what he wants is something else, something that remains outside of the trajectory and interests of the art world. It’s elsewhere he tells me. But I think I know what he wants. He wants for people to sit with this knowledge of our position in violent and catastrophic failure and knowing that, get up and make a decision about what to do, and have that decision be a radical departure from what has been done up until this moment in history. Perhaps for Mario and Ruben the radical is less compelling a position from which to practice, though their chosen materials are hardly less provocative—no less so and no less ready to continue to contend. It remains to be seen how they will respond to their own set of limitations and what tools they choose to bring to bear.

Seph Rodney is now engaged in a research Ph.D. at the University of London-Birkbeck College. The specific course he is enrolled in, The London Consortium, is a particularly intense and stridently interdisciplinary school closely connected with art and science institutions within the city. His study entails comparing two rooms: one in the Tate Modern and another within the Museum of Modern Art in New York in terms of how they employ structures for making meaning. He also doesn’t mind just being beguiled by beauty now and again. sephr@earthlink.net

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