By DeWitt Cheng
The critique of American mass culture continues in this group show, curated by Lian Ladia, by the Filipino art collective Kwatro Kantos — England Hidalgo, Marcius Noceda, Carlo Ricafort, and Mel Vera Cruz, joined by John Yoyogi Fortes, at 21 Grand.
Born in the Philippines and now living in the Bay Area, these artists have reason to see American culture as complicit with military power: McKinley’s colonialist and geopolitical Fil-Am war, after all, killing up to a million and inaugurating the use of water torture and concentration camps, was sold to Gilded-Age Americans as a war of liberation against a decadent, corrupt Spain and as our holy mission “to Christianize and civilize” (McKinley) our already Catholic “little brown brothers” (Taft). The Kwatro-Kantos artists make art to challenge such mainstream nonsense, unfortunately not yet defunct; to explore ambiguous mixed-culture identity; and to exult in the freedoms of biculturalism.
Postmodernist collage and graffiti predominate here, reflecting the cultural mash-up. Degradation and absurdity infuse Hidalgo’s “in the mood for love,” with its sad social realist drawing and manic Mad Mag discontinuities, while “common slogan” questions the military/religious convictions that “God is on our side”; in “we don’t make it to the headlines,” a young woman, naked but hooded, sits slumped in a chair while Mickey Mouse presents us with various phallic weapons of torture. Noceda’s “Untitled (two dead corpses)” depicts two blindfolded, armless figures hung strappado-style, contorted, in straitjackets. Ricafort and Fortes improvise open-ended paintings of indeterminate meaning, but equally compelling and disturbing. Vera Cruz’s photomontage, “Anghel de la Guardia,” combines Columbus, Elvis, American fighter planes, Geronimo, a buffalo, crowns, a rat, a hamburger, a Route 66 sign, and roses into an anti-heroic vision of New World history; his replacement of King Kong atop the Empire State Building with a rice god atop a bottle of gin castigates the racism that once labeled Filipino workers “brown monkeys.” Poet Barbara Jane Reyes sees the artwork as angry and rueful, yet undeterred: “See how we’ve been warped, fucked up, and undeniably empowered by American popular culture.”
Join the warped club. “America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people,” President Bush told the Philippine Congress in 2004, after embarking on his imperial misadventure. “Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule.” Yes, the Yale history major really said it. Through September 13 at 21 Grand (416 25th St., Oakland). 21Grand.org or 510-444-7263.