In order to see the most woke show of the season, So Close and So Far, you will have to make a crossing, but not to worry, as the border you will be breaching is that of Montecito. Your destination is the Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art, where Andrea Bowers and Marcos Ramírez ERRE have installed an eloquent and forceful meditation on the double standard that afflicts our contemporary national discourse on immigration. ERRE operates in Tijuana, and Bowers works out of Los Angeles. For this show, they have joined forces in multiple media, creating thought-provoking images and objects that reflect a shared sense of impatience with the simplistic demonization of Mexicans and other people who participate in the American economy without enjoying the benefits of citizenship. It’s timely, it’s uncompromising, and it’s controversial — just what an exhibition ought to be at this precarious moment in the history of the American project.
The show’s core image comes from a re-creation of one of ERRE’s signature works, the “Toy An-Horse” of 1997. Originally rendered as a nearly 35-foot-tall sculpture and placed at the San Ysidro border crossing between the U.S. and Mexico, “Toy An-Horse” has been rebuilt at a more gallery-friendly scale, but it retains the capacity to stop the viewer in her tracks. It’s a Trojan horse, complete with wooden wheels and a barrel-shaped belly just perfect for hiding soldiers, but unlike the Trojan horse of legend, this one has two heads. Like the “pushmi-pullyu” in the children’s story of Dr. Dolittle, the “Toy An-Horse” is at once capable of going either way, yet unable to do so without forcing one head or the other into reverse. As a condensed and indelible image of the contemporary immigration dilemma, it could hardly be better. We need immigrant labor to pick our crops, clean our homes, and care for our children, and so much more, but the push forward they provide to our economy can quickly become a pull back when the time comes to treat the undocumented as fully deserving members of society with equal rights to protection under the law. Placed at the border crossing of San Ysidro, where protesters on the Mexican side forced four consecutive weekends of closure this year, the piece meant one thing. At Westmont, just a couple of miles from the luxurious San Ysidro Ranch, it may mean something slightly different.
So do the other works by ERRE, as well as the fascinating contributions of Bowers, which range from a heartbreaking video that documents the fate of a Mexican woman separated from her child by deportation to a magnificent sculpted drawing on cardboard called “Monarch Butterfly (Families Do Not Have Borders)” from 2016. The entire show is a tour de force of sophisticated image making in the service of a broader social message, and, under our dire current political circumstances, it demands to be seen. Congratulations to Judy Larson and the staff at the Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art for taking this brave stance just when we need it most.
The Architectural Foundation of Santa Barbara is hosting another show right now that also manages to capture the raw sense of urgency many of us are feeling. Into Nothing: New Paintings in Ash and Oil by Tom Pazderka derives much of its imagery from the recent wild fires that have scarred our region. Using a hybrid technique that combines pyrography (that’s woodburning) with pigments created out of ash and oil, Pazderka, a lecturer in art at Allan Hancock College and a recent grad of UCSB’s MFA program, conjures a vision of the Central Coast that’s beautiful, scary, and sublime. Flanked by smaller portraits of reclusive philosophers done in the same medium, these large paintings on board send a message that is at once powerful and enigmatic. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, but there’s also the possibility of rebirth.