BY David Pagel in Reviews | 11 SEP 95
Featured in
Issue 25

Rubén Ortiz-Torres

BY David Pagel in Reviews | 11 SEP 95

Rubén Ortiz-Torres' super-glossy colour photographs turn the urban world into a wild carnival ride on which your surroundings whirl by in a giddy, dizzying blur. Out of focus, shot at tilted angles and illuminated by glaring artificial lights, these rich images of ordinary people and everyday places capture the magic and anxiety of living in the city. Everything is in flux ­ and moving with jittery swiftness ­ in the Mexico-born, Los Angeles-based artist's sumptuous celebrations of the possibilities presented when cultures rub shoulders in jam-packed, fast-paced juxtaposition.

Ortiz-Torrez' potent show is titled 'The House of Mirrors', after a low budget, side-show attraction in which viewers pay to have their reflections thrown back at themselves in hilariously distorted forms. It revels in the fact that cultural identities are most interesting when they're unsettling ­ when, rather than confirming traditions and shoring up stereotypes, they loosen the ties that bind communities together, generating unexpected meanings and providing ample room in which more fluid (or eccentric) identities might emerge.

To make this hallucinatory body of work, Ortiz-Torrez travelled around the United States, Mexico and Guatemala, photographing anonymous people as they enjoyed a moment of leisure or took part in some festive celebration that, often involving elaborate, fanciful costumes. At a holiday parade in Santa Barbara, California, he photographed two blonde children stuffed into a taco-shaped float made of flowers and papier-mâché. At the Liverpool Pub in Mexico City, he took a portrait of the Mexican Beatles in glittery Sgt. Pepper regalia, appearing strangely serious under fluorescent lights that endowed the reincarnated foursome with a quasi-religious aura. In Panajachel, Guatemala, a crudely carved, eight-foot-tall duplicate of the Statue of Liberty ­ standing with awkward pride outside a public restroom ­ caught Ortiz-Torrez' eye for real-world weirdness. At South of the Border, a roadside diner that doubles as a souvenir shop, motel and theme park in Dillon, South Carolina, he snapped a picture of Sombrero Tower, compressing references to the cliché of lawless Mexico's illicit pleasures and the Leaning Tower of Pisa's flawed architectural glory. Other eye-popping photos depict a midget bullfight in East LA, a plaster saint blessing a giant tooth outside a dentist's office in Guatemala City, and NASA Tacos, a fast-food restaurant in Mexico City made to look like a space station. In almost all of Ortiz-Torres' prints, local festivities include components from supposedly alien cultures, suggesting that modern identity has less to do with some outdated fantasy of indigenous purity than with free-wheeling hybridisation and fervent cross-pollination.

Fantasy and reality converge with whiplash frequency in Ortiz-Torrez' photos. His pictures refuse to make a marginal place for cultural specificity or difference, instead inviting viewers to share his conviction that these ordinarily devalued categories are absolutely central. Ortiz-Torrez' photos thus rewrite the rules by which the game of multiculturalism is played in the US art world, forcefully demonstrating that it is racist to behave as if otherness has no impact on the dominant culture unless it is approved by academic institutions, in which it dutifully takes its powerless place. In the topsy-turvy world documented by Ortiz-Torrez' well-rounded realism, otherness is never fixed, nor restricted to any category on the periphery. As these pictures attest, everyone, at some time or another, experiences the world from the perspective of the 'other'. In cities, this tense, intoxicating phenomena happens more rapidly and radically than anywhere else, revealing that urban consciousness and creativity go hand-in-hand ­ as do beauty and anxiety. These are the high jinks and risks on which Ortiz-Torrez' photos thrive, and which they boldly solicit viewers to share by shamelessly parading their dizzying pleasures.