Necessary Fictions
Room 100, Golden Belt
Through July 11

With what markers do you choose to identify yourself? The countries of your family’s origin or the town you currently live in? Your stories and memories? The money you make or the stuff you buy with it? Or do you pretty much let who and what’s around you define who you are? Who the hell are you, anyway? And, as important, why?

Necessary Fictions, a six-artist show in Golden Belt’s Room 100 gallery in Durham through July 11, makes coherent some of the lines of force slashing through and emerging from the identity term “Latina/o.” The show’s curatorsJohn Ribó, who is completing a comparative literature doctorate at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Mario Marzán, an artist and faculty member in UNC’s art departmenthave brought together provocative work both with and without North Carolina connections, displaying an exciting diversity of thought and media.

Their catalogue notes the complexity of the term “Latina/o,” which simultaneously discards one’s original national identity while forging a crucial identity within the United States. But how united are these states, anyway? And how exactly does one’s Cuban, Mexican or Puerto Rican heritage play out against them? With displacement comes an opportunity for reinvention. The works in this show express this ambivalence in intelligible yet complex ways.

Two large paintings by Izel Vargas anchor the show. Both reconsider icons of 1950s prosperity through juxtaposition with natural signifiers and forms. Visually echoing the sketchy assemblages of Julie Mehretu and Robert Rauschenberg, “Oscuridad” and “Cicatriz” face each other across Room 100 and seem to both mirror and transpose each other, or they are faces of the same coin. In both paintings, a Cleaver-esque couple gazes into space, perhaps at the outline of a Levittown cottage or a mushroom cloud. At the same time, floating in both paintings are hands that point mysteriously to astronomical forms, or they release bright ka-pow explosions with sleight-of-hand flourish.

Susy Bielak’s video installation, “Quake/Temblor,” enacts a more literal deconstruction of similar signs. A living room arrangement of thrift-store furniture sits upon a table that turns out to be seismically active, one that tears the place apart, all to the sound of mariachi music. Bielak does not frame out the heavy-duty machinery of the quake table in this loopan inescapable system unaware of what’s at its mercy. You watch a life’s trappings reduced to debris and then reset, again and again.

Intimidating systems are also in play in the dramatizations of scale in two artists’ works. Mara DeGuzmán’s extreme close-up photographs of dioramas show toy workers firmly in the panopticon’s sights. In “He saw himself in the gaze of the dominant culture,” a laborer in overalls contemplates his reflected image in the surface of a neon eye. He’s unable to see the eye for his own reflection in it. Josué Pellot also uses scale in his five microfigurines. These warm yet anonymous sculptures honor Pellot’s family members while representing their depersonalization through stereotyping by making them too small to capture any unique or differentiating features. “Elvira” could be any Hispanic maid or waitress; “Anna Luisa Rios” could be any abuela in a house dress.

Not all of the works dwell on Latina/o subalternity, however. Francis Marquez, in four vivid photographs from her “Chonga series,” gives a vision of empowerment and defiance in the face of displacement. Mimicking a fashion shoot, a young woman in tight tank tops, huge hoop earrings and spectacular makeup stares straight out of the image against lush, abstract backgrounds. Equal parts confrontational and simply present, these portraits act like watchers over the exhibition from the far wall of the gallery.

A different kind of sentry emerges in Mario Marzán’s short video contribution, “Boricua Roswell: Centurion,” which is basically the X-Files episode that Werner Herzog never made. This unscripted investigation into Puerto Rico’s Laguna Cartagena National Wildlife Refugean important habitat for native species that’s also known for UFO sightingssubtly shows how multiple myths overlay and combine in a place to form a history as inevitably insane as it is true. Marzán found Ismael Francisco, an old man who, after returning from decades of work in New York, describes multiple encounters with extraterrestrials. He claims that these “centurions” were responsible for the 9/11 attacks but also protect the fragile ecosystem of the refuge. The grizzled man teeters on the cusp of believability, between between the lyrical and the factual.

Ultimately, all six artists themselves move between the lyrical and the factual. Rather than merely asking what “Latina/o” means, they make it mean what they need it to mean. There’s the day-to-day reality of one’s identity, and there are the ways in which the imagination can be deployed to complicate and transform them.