When traffic jammed up at Montrose and Bissonnet one afternoon last week, drivers might have blamed San Antonio-based artist Cruz Ortiz. The culprit was a traffic signal on the blink though and not the star of Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's latest show Perspectives 170, which runs through July 11.
Ortiz was unmistakable, standing atop a purpose built siege engine of love in front of the CAMH and quickly screen-printing poems that he cast down to the audience below as AC/DC roared above the traffic. Ortiz was listening to his own mix of Billie Holiday and Al Greene while "Hay Sunshine" and "Cuando She's Gone" fluttered down.
He may not have brought an invading army with his siege tower, but Ortiz did bring the party. Fusion Taco was there, taking a break from roving the streets with its truck full of Asian-Tex-Mex-BBQ gourmet creations. One thing we have to say about CAMH is that they know how to marshal the troops.
Their events create a sense that art is in museums but also part of the public life of the city, and Ortiz has the ability to draw people in with a blend of self-deprecating humor and and a kind of irony he practices without cynicism.
Ortiz atop the tower managed to be both 21st century homemade and medieval all at once. The idea of scaling the walls of a castle in a rickety tower is funny, for sure. But it also blends Ortiz's main themes: Love and social protest. It isn't always clear what, precisely, Ortiz is protesting, but in his gallery talk he referred to growing up the child of immigrants and to America's border woes.
Ortiz gestured toward one of the objects in the exhibit, an oil barrel repurposed into a steel protest drum mounted on wheels: "Next stop, Arizona."
But Ortiz's art is not dogmatic. In his talk he referred to a legacy of identity politics in art he endeavored to avoid. While clearly working as a Latino artist, he also clamed to be "raised on Scooby Doo and the Smurfs. And it's worth noting that Ortiz was raised in Houston. In fact, a host of relatives had poured into the gallery to support him.
Near the protest drum was a two-person megaphone made of cardboard and mounted on fresh bamboo. The idea must be that two people could join their voices together in protest and still be distinct: A fantasy, perhaps, but one at the heart of Ortiz's makeshift magical world.
The central figure in Ortiz's art is a persona called "Spaztek" (part spastic, part Aztec) who wears a space helmet and is joined by a host of companions that Cruz described as being "like cousins who get you into trouble." Images of these figures hung in the galleries, but the installation is mostly an encampment.
Ortiz constructed the work out of an elaborate narrative involving a siege of love, travel through tunnels to Vietnam, and other details you may not remember. What's most striking, however, is the idea that art exists to create a world for one's companions, real and imagined. This world is low-tech, full of zipped tents with lightning bolts printed on the outside and flickering strobe lights inside. Blue tarps offer precarious shelter, draped over poles.
There's something wonderful about the way Ortiz manages to suggest the camaraderie of camping out with friends and the desperation of disaster. The tarps are the unmistakable gear of hurricane aftermath, and the tents, Ortiz says, were evoked by the children of Somali refugees taken in by San Antonio who populate his classes.
Ortiz describes himself in the tradition of classic Latin American printmakers who hang their works on clotheslines to dry. There's something very in-the-moment about his prints. While printmaking is all about repetition, the inexact nature of the prints makes each feel unique. And Ortiz's texts blend his signature humor with the repeatable quality that slogans have: "Tu amor es como un flat tire con no spare."
Like the tents in the gallery, there's definitely lightning inside Ortiz's works, and viewers are left wanting to unzip them to see what else is there.