Jerry Peña: Off Alondra and Hickory
September 3 through October 1, 2021
By JONATHAN OROZCO, November 2021
Jerry Peña is a historian of the Mexican-American experience. His objects are the result of extensive geographical research and archeology, blending his own lived experience living in Los Angeles and those of all Mexicans at large. Off Alondra and Hickory, his recent solo-exhibition at Maple St. Construct, teeters between personal and greater social narratives by retelling the working-class history of Mexicans in the United States.
The show originates in Los Angeles, where Peña is from, and recalls the people that generated the driving culture in that metropolis. Situated within centuries of imperial conquest, land ownership, and ethnic conflicts, L.A. became a Hispanicized city, with a majority Hispanic working-class populace. Peña roots his found objects and assemblages with this in mind.
Following the Duchampian tradition, Peña primarily works with pre-fabricated objects, but instead of sourcing them from retailers, he scavenges for his materials by visiting primarily Mexican-American neighborhoods, which are often industrious and coated in the refuse created through labor. Although the exhibition conceptually starts in Los Angeles, this time, Peña toured South Omaha, where the city’s Hispanic population is concentrated – and he found just what he was looking for. His materials range from discarded hubcaps, weathered Mexican flags, and Mexican candy wrappers, which add potency to his theoretical base.
Like artists working within the Arte Povera tradition, Peña allows his works to degenerate. In one such work titled Penca Penetration, he took a leaf stalk from an agave plant, stood it on an earthy plinth, and pierced it with rusted nails. Initially, the work takes the form of a prickly cactus found in any arid desert. To many Mexicans, this plant is culturally significant, since the cactus appears within the Mexican foundation myth of an eagle sitting on a cactus, which is displayed on the Mexican flag, but it’s also a major food source. As an artwork, Penca Penetration is meant to erode and wither, like Giovanni Anselmo’s Untitled (Structure that Eats), from 1968.
Another work meant to erode over time, albeit in a different way, is Hubcap City, a large-scale wall work composed of, dirt and newspaper, duct tape, and, you guessed it, hubcaps. There are layers happening here, with duct tape acting as a canvas-like surface, coated in brown dirt, where then hubcaps are mounted. The direction refers to car culture, which is particularly significant in Los Angeles, but can be found in other cities, like how Peña found it in Omaha. A sense of erosion is present as chunks of dirt fall and pile on the floor.
Overall, the works in this exhibition speak to Rasquachismo, a tradition focused on working class and Chicano aesthetics, and in this case, the particularities of Mexicans-Americans living in Omaha. WM
Jonathan Orozco is an independent writer based in Omaha, Nebraska. He received his art history BA from the University of Nebraska Omaha in 2020. Orozco runs an art blog called Art Discourses, which primarily covers Midwest artists and exhibitions.view all articles from this author