The U.S. flag that Alejandro Cartagena painted on the wall of Kopeikin Gallery’s corridor extends across the floor. Viewers almost have to stand on the red and white stripes to look at the tight grid of framed images on the wall. For those determined to walk around, there is a path approximately ten inches wide, but it’s both more aggressive and more incidental than, for instance, Dread Scott’s 1989 installation at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he placed an American flag on the floor beneath a stand holding a book (getting to the stand required stepping on the flag).
Cartagena, who lives and works in Monterrey, Mexico, calls this installation, bitingly, The Collective Memory of the Worst Place to Live in the World Today If You Are Not White. He made it after a residency in Santa Barbara, the luxurious coastal city. The images hung on the wall include a pretty blond looking shocked, students gathering for a vigil, a forest fire raging, and an American flag hanging from a tree. Extremes manifest: photographs of gorgeously curated interiors sit next to images of a liquor store or mattress on a sidewalk. The photographs loosely reference the events of May 23, 2014, when a young man shot 20 people near Santa Barbra’s campus, killing six and himself. But if you didn’t recognize the pixelated likeness of the shooter or the mournful face of Richard Martinez, the father who went on a public gun-control mission after losing his son Christopher to the deadly rampage, you might read it as a critical take on misguided patriotism in times of economic strife.
On the opposite wall hang aerial photographs of vehicles on a freeway, the cars or trucks filling nearly every frame. Laborers lay or stand in truck beds in eight photographs. A new convertible occupied by as single male driver features in another photograph. On view through October 21, these images themselves are straightforward enough, documentary in their aesthetic attitude, but a few feet away hangs a photograph of a bumper sticker that reads “Return Jobs to US,” conjuring all the heat surrounding labor issues. Violence is dark and confusing – in life, and as a spectral presence in Cartagena’s photographs – but the social realities, class disparities and animosities that surround it can be documented. So Cartagena documents them, allowing the confusion and the concrete to mingle uncomfortably but affectingly.