Editor's note: The following essay is reprinted March 23, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The essay was written in conjunction with Eamon Ore-Giron's exhibition, Mirage. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue containing it, please contact the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:
Eamon Ore-Giron: Mirage
by Alex Baker
Los Angeles-based Eamon Ore-Giron makes paintings and wall installations that explore the mythology and popular culture of an American West formed by the co-mingling of Mexican, Native-American, and white-American cultures. His art reflects a childhood raised in the sun-drenched desert of Tucson, Arizona -- a landscape readily co-opted fur tourism where golf courses meet big sky and Wild-West ghost towns blur with tourist traps. Often drawing from family photographs, Ore-Giron compares his paintings to "snapshots in a vacation album." Indeed, the artist has an uncanny eye fur compositions that evoke both the myopic vision of the tourist's gaze and the landscape created fur the tourist's delight and consumption. This is Ore.Giron's first solo museum exhibition.
Ore-Giron has lived in Peru, Spain, Mexico, California, and the Southwest and these experiences have formed the foundations of his visual vocabulary. As a youngster, his mother was employed on the Tohono'odham reservation, enabling Ore-Giron to experience the world of this Native-American group first hand. He also became acquainted with the ceremonies of the Zuni, Yaqui, Hopi, and Pueblo people, owing to the cultural melting pot of the Southwest. Ore-Giron himself is from a diverse background. His mother is a fourth generation Arizonian of Irish descent, his father is Peruvian, born in Ayacucho and raised in Huancayo, a town in the central Andes region of rural Peru. The family's regular visits to Huancayo made a lasting impression on the artist. In particular, Ore-Giron became fascinated by chonguinada dancers -- Peruvians of Incan descent who wear the white masks and dress of the Spanish colonial conqueror in a celebration that combines indigenous and Catholic ritual. The chonguinada are a subject that the artist continues to explore throughout his work (see Huancayo , illustrated here). Like the dreamscapes Ore-Giron paints, the chonguinada are a fusion of native and invader cultural traditions that when brought together form a new hybrid. His background thus positions Ore-Giron as a keen observer of the myriad ways disparate cultural identities intersect. But Ore-Giron is an artist not an anthropologist. His paintings are not social science treatises but highly personalized, even fantastic statements that both condense and exaggerate his impressions of being in the world.
The manner in which Ore-Giron freely mixes subject matter and characters from various cultures underscores the notion that identity is fluid, not fixed. Exit Strategy (2005) (see front cover) depicts a male hiding beneath a blanket as if refusing to be categorized as just another exotic human subject -- cultural fodder for our insatiable desire for ethnic novelty. But the label "exotic," despite its racist overtones, may just be an accurate description of this being. He wears henna tattoos (a body art fad appropriated by whites over the past several years from India and the Arabic world); Native-American- meets Elvis Presley-style fringed cowboy pants; and a shirt featuring the yellow, blue, purple, and green textile patterns of the Huichol people of western Mexico -- renowned fur their ritual use of the natural hallucinogen peyote. Similarly, the two paintings Praise for the Morning (see back cover) and Praise for the Evening (both 2004) portray a blanket-cloaked figure reminiscent of Fist Full of Dollars-era Clint Eastwood or a Mexican bandito from a spaghetti Western. Paintings such as these also serve as self-portraits and comment on Ore-Giron's own personal negotiation of cultural hybridity.
Masks, rather than blankets, hide the identities of figures in other paintings on view. In Tombstone (2001), named after the legendary Arizona town and home of both the gunfight at OK Corral and the Boothill Graveyard, two masked characters hold tomahawk/rifles and wear exaggerated ten-gallon-cum-cactus hats, complete with nectar-sucking humming birds. The masked characters, based on Peruvian chonguinada dancers join albino mountain lions in guarding an imaginary Wild-West landscape peopled by what are plausibly the ghosts of the Earp and Clanton brothers -- the men who shot it out at the OK Corral back in 1881.
Trucker Pueblo (2004) (see illustration) is another example of the artist's investigation of cultural fusion whereby an icon of the American highway, the tractor trailer, meets an icon of the American Southwest, the Native-American pueblo dwelling. A recurring visual element seen in much of the work in the exhibition is a painstaking rendition of wood grain and cactus texture that envelopes both animate and inanimate objects, from human and animal limbs to clothing and in this instance, a tractor trailer. Ore-Giron's transformation of these things into wood serves as oblique commentary on how the rugged quaintness of the American West permeates popular culture. Is the wooden vehicle/adobe structure illustrated in Trucker Pueblo the product of a fictional culture inhabiting the interstices of Arizona reality or just another prop in a Southwestern-style amusement park? Trucker Pueblo might also be interpreted as a riff on the Melanesian cargo cults. Cargo cults, which reached their peak during World War II, grew out of indigenous peoples' reaction to European power and new forms of wealth. Witnessing the arrival of vast quantities of goods by sea and by air, Pacific islanders built simulated wharves, airstrips, airplanes, and communications towers in an effort to attract the bounty they believed would eventually be bestowed upon them by a benevolent god. If we follow this line of interpretation, perhaps the people who built the trucker pueblo anticipated great wealth via an eighteen.wheeler.
Ore-Giron is fascinated by our desire for "authentic" representations of history and culture -- a desire that inevitably collapses into Disneyland versions of reality. In Brown Town (2003), for example, Ore-Giron has painted what appears to be a theme park of a "real" Wild-West ghost town complete with a skeleton of a hanged criminal and a tourist in a pink sweatsuit. A similar simulation of an idealized West is posited in Untitled (2003) (see illustration). Here, a steam locomotive amusement park ride, piloted by a portly engineer and carrying a lone passenger, passes through an Indian settlement of teepees -- a scene reminiscent of a bad middle school social studies textbook from another era tritely explaining the victory of technology and progress over the so-called "primitive." Teepees, like elaborate feathered headdresses, have become stereotypical images that represent "Indian" in the popular imagination (despite their specificity to only a few Great Plains Native-American cultures), much in the same way that a saloon with swinging doors signifies the Wild West.
Interwoven throughout the ersatz landscape of theme parks and ghost towns is a sensitivity to ritual and tradition. Ore-Giron's use of chonguinada dancers as a leitmotif in his art and his insertion of these dancers into the postmodem landscape is evidence that Ore.Giron is not simply reveling in an endgame of hyper-reality, where the real and artificial are interchangeable and wishy-washy relativism reigns supreme. On the contrary, it is as if Ore-Giron is calling fur a reinvigoration of ritual in order to counterbalance the "triumph" of Westward expansion, modernization, and subjugation. Could it be that mall parking lots, all-you-can-eat buffets, and golf courses have been constructed on lands that were once sacred sites? And might they become sacred again? Traditions kept alive in Ore-Giron's family further underscore the artist's interest in the place of ritual amid the vacuity of the leisure landscape. Cookin' I (2002) (see illustration) shows Ore-Giron's aunt and cousin preparing tamales for an elaborate Peruvian pachamanca feast. For the feast, stones are heated in a fire pit, the embers are removed, and the hot rocks slowly cook layers of lamb, tamales, fava beans, and herbs -- all of which are entombed in earth and topped with a Christian cross. In Brain Tan (2004) (like Cookin' I, also based on a family photograph), a young Ore-Giron and his brother are instructed in the hide-tanning process by their uncle. Brain tanning involves rubbing the brain of the animal into its skin to give it a smooth finish.
Before moving to Los Angeles, Ore-Giron spent more than a decade in San Francisco, where he worked with and was greatly influenced by avant-garde performance artists Nao Bustamante, Miguel Calderon, Mads Lynnerup, and Jake Hartman. He also became associated with that city's burgeoning art scene, dubbed the Mission School or New Folk (for better or worse). Painter/installation artists including Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, and Chris Johanson over the past several years have put San Francisco on the art world map once again for their emphasis on the handmade, the forlorn, and the marginalized, undertaken through keen social observation and emphasis on narrative. In contrast to the Bay Area dot.com image of the high tech, their art eschews the consumerism of the new economy and never embraced the penchant fur theory and slickness that became so popular in contemporary art practice during the 1990s. While Ore-Giron's painting style is cleaner and more hard-edged than his former San Francisco Mission School colleagues and his subject matter less abject, he shares with them the observer's eye for storytelling and an ability to skillfully negotiate extremes in scale, from wall-sized paintings to miniatures.
About the author:
Alex Baker is Curator of Contemporary Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
About the exhibition:
Eamon Ore-Giron's exhibition, Mirage, is on view March 5 - May 15, 2005 in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' Morris Gallery -- which houses the Academy's program devoted to contemporary art. This new exhibition features paintings completed over the last two years and a new, site-specific wall installation. Ore-Giron's art reflects a childhood in the sun and desert of Tucson, Arizona. His paintings and installations blend contemporary graphic design, folk and tourist art, and surrealism. They represent his take on the co-mingling of Mexican, Native-American, and white American cultures seen in an environment where golf course landscapes meet big sky, and tourist traps blur with Wild West ghost towns. This is Ore-Giron's first solo museum exhibition.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. Karen Bruderle of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for her help concerning the above text.
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