Ernesto Ortiz, Untitled (Getaway),courtesy Golden Parachutes Gallery
Ernesto Ortiz: Gringo Rebel at Golden Parachutes
42E Kreuzberg Str.
May 23 through June 26, 2009
The border, as both physical reality and philosophical entity, forms the backdrop of the paintings Ernesto Ortiz is working on for his first solo exhibition, opening on May 23rd at Golden Parachutes in Berlin. Indeed, it could be said that the U.S.-Mexican border is one of the rare places where the supposed abstractions of philosophy become manifested in physical form. At a time when relations between the two nations are at a tense impasse, it seems highly appropriate that the artist, born in the United States of Mexican heritage, would choose this moment to reflect on the self-created American myth of “the other.”
I recently visited Ortiz at his studio in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, where I got to see several of the paintings Ortiz is working on for his upcoming exhibition, as well as other recent work. The new paintings represent a departure in terms of both style and palette for the artist. Ortiz’s last major series was a meditation on a single photograph – he made fifty paintings based on manipulated variations of Joe Rosenthal’s famous image of U.S. soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima, all done in a loose, expressionistic style, typically with darker hues. The new paintings use bright, even garish colors, and are often rendered in ornate, blanket-like patterns or Liechtensteinian dots.
The artist’s concern with politics and the painterly landscape, however, remains a constant. Still, Ortiz’s new series tackles a rather different form of mediated Americana – the cinematic Western. The artist became fascinated with these films when he first realized that many Europeans base their impressions of Mexico – and Mexicans – on them. “I wasn’t aware of this until I came to Europe. They’re more dependent on this image than the Americans.”
Ernesto Ortiz, Tomorrow By Sundown, Better be Out of Town, Boy, courtesy Golden Parachutes Gallery
Ortiz intends his paintings to do more than merely comment on this conception of “the Mexican for Europeans.” One of the more striking paintings Ortiz showed me was Untitled (Getaway). The image, of an empty telephone pole-lined road cutting a swath through the desert, is taken from the last scene of Sam Peckinpah’s film, The Getaway. Here, Mexico figures as a romantic symbol of lawlessness and freedom – it is the only safe haven for the criminal couple who are the heroes of the film, the place where the law cannot touch them.
Of course, this conception of Mexico being synonymous with lawlessness and crime also informs the (white) American view of the land “south of the border” – and white America’s fear and hatred of the ethnic other, which informs much of the debate surrounding immigration, as well as media coverage of the recent drug wars. Acutely sensitive to these issues, Ortiz submits his scene to hot colors – a fiery orange-red and a burning blue – as though to magnify the sense of danger and mystery that accommodates this particular notion of what Mexico stands for. In two further paintings of the border, the texts GLOBAL DESTINATION and VIOLENT WORLD emerge in the midst of the landscape, almost giving us the feeling that we are looking at strange advertisements in a travel magazine, rather than the contested No Man’s Land where two Americas converge.
Ortiz’s strongest statement on identity, however, may be found in the painting Adios Amigos, a crude stereotype of a smiling Mexican man depicted in brown. As I was studying this painting, Ortiz noted that census predictions assert that by 2050, over half of the United States population will be brown, making whites the minority. “Growing up on the border,” he continued, “I saw a lot of closet Hispanics. To identify Mexico was to taint yourself. In the United States, cultural identity is all about absence. If you’re white, then you lack that identity. To have any other is to be tainted.”
It will be interesting to see how far Ortiz’s new work is able to go in tainting contemporary European notions of what Mexico represents.
Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio.view all articles from this author