The moment I read the title of this exhibition, I knew it was going to be a fun one. I wasn’t wrong.
The friendship and dynamic between the members of Los Outsiders — a curatorial collective based in Austin and formed by Jaime Salvador Castillo, Michael Anthony García, Roberto Jackson Harrington and Hector Hernandez — is reflected in the 40 pieces by the twelve artists in the show, all of whom they admire. These works explore shape, color, and nonconventional ways to show artwork that go beyond a piece simply hanging on a wall. Of the artists included in this show at the Laredo Center for the Arts, nine were selected because they were the curators’ existing “art crushes,” three of Los Outsiders have work in the show themselves, and all were gathered for this project as a celebratory quinceañera.
But what is an “art crush”? And why a quinceañera? The curatorial premise of this project actually begins in 2008 (15 years ago), when Hernandez was invited to show at La Antigua Aduana in Nuevo Laredo. Formerly a customs office, the large, older building was remodeled to be a cultural space. In order to fill the gallery, Hernandez decided to invite artists whose work he admired and was inspirational to him — i.e., artists on whom he had an “art crush.” The resulting exhibition was described as both eclectic and progressive for the time and region.
Fast forward fifteen years, and Hernandez has returned to the other side of the border with his partners to celebrate a journey in which they have found spaces to show their work freely. This new show similarly illustrates the dynamic of profound respect and constructive criticism they have learned from one another, much of which is wrapped up in humor.
The show’s name, Chai’n Brai Laika Daimon, a phonetic phrase inspired by Rihanna’s hit song “Shine Bright like a Diamond,” reminds us of the fun side of life at the border. Inspired by a Spanish speaker who learns English later in life, the title remarks upon the accent that exists within a bilingual region and the individuals who carry this accent with honor.
The first piece on view is a sculpture of a large red car by Keith Allyn Spencer, titled Find the 2 and you will be kissed tomorrow. The work is made of aerosol on polytab and is exhibited on a wooden base, letting it take the form of a real sports vehicle. The piece is a metaphorical invitation to cruise your favorite downtown street before hitting a Saturday night party, all as you’re hearing your favorite hit on the radio. The song that came to my mind when I saw this was “Ride with me” from Nelly.
Immediately behind Spencer’s car is a series of small sculptures, which play with both shape and color, all sitting on pedestals made of green and red soda bottles. These works, by Jackson Harrington, use materials from everyday life to invite the viewer to reimagine what an object can be, instead of dictating what it already is. Small sculptures made of plastic objects and stainless steel scrubbing pads imitate figures like bugs or aliens elevated as mythical species, rising above the pillars of colorful soft drink bottles, which are themselves surrounded by green plastic and yellow chains.
The works in this exhibition that speak most to me are the ones deconstructing Latina traditions in order to open space for people to create their own meaning and significance of what a woman is supposed to be.
Jasmine Zelaya’s large painting on canvas shows us the pride of a first-generation migrant from Honduras living in the United States. Brown faces merge with figures of pink and purple flower petals.
Nearby, four digital prints by Hernandez carry an important feminine energy; they are his own interpretations of deities and characters in science fiction novels. The models are faceless, wearing masks, tunics, and costumes made from simple materials like paper and fabric. The costumes are based on geometric shapes with bright colors and explore the artist’s interest in the tensions that exist between the spaces that both form and color occupy.
Mariah Ann Johnson’s Silver Lake walks night + day is a large mixed media installation that evokes the walks the artist would take twice a day throughout her neighborhood during the COVID-19 pandemic. Made of watercolor and colored pencil on paper, the various components of the installation are held together with copper wire threaded through eyelets. Every time the work is reinstalled in a new place, it takes a different form.
It’s a warm piece, and reminds me of the reversible blankets my grandmother would have around her house, an analogy of human nature in many ways. We are all made of the same core pieces, but take different forms as we code-switch based on the situation.
There was a performance for the show by Julia Clair Wallace that marked the 13th birthday of her daughter. Wallace wore clothing and jewelry that once belonged to women in her family, and invited members of Los Outsiders to accompany her daughter, Lily, around a feminine-themed ouija board crafted from her late grandmother’s table. The audience took part by holding a string that served as a protection nest, and stood surrounding the circle. The participants asked philosophical questions around the topics of collaboration and intuition, and cryptic answers were received, written on blank pages of a bible that had been left around the table during the run of the exhibition. While the performance communicated an energy of femininity, the subtext of collaboration and community was also present in both the performance and the exhibition itself. This sense of community is truly a strength of the project.
Chai’n Brai Laika Daimon is a milestone exhibition that reflects both the years of collaborative work invested into Laredo’s creatives, and also the ongoing evolution and strength of the city’s community.
Chai’n Brai Laika Daimonis on view at the Laredo Center for the Arts through February 2, 2024.