I’ll Take You There: Carlos Villa: Manongs, Some Doors, and a Bouquet of Crates
Carlos Villa’s beautiful new show, Manongs, Some Doors, and a Bouquet of Crates, at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Art (MCCLA) is a selective survey of his work, and the show is a great introduction to Villa’s formal, thematic, and stylistic range. The show’s title is indicative of the diversity of the work from Villa’s long career, which has spanned more than seven decades.
As Filipino American cultural critic Theo Gonsalves notes, some art historians as well as some Asian American Studies scholars have had a hard time placing Villa’s wide-ranging body of work. As a Filipino American, Villa has never shied from referencing his cultural heritage in his work, most notably in his striking, large-scale cloaks of feathers, bone, shells, hair, and other evocative organic materials. But Villa also has a large body of non-representational pieces that don’t easily fit into culturally specific pigeonholes, which puzzles the more literally minded multiculturalists among us. However, his ability to move easily between culturally rooted work and work that less directly references his cultural background is perhaps what best defines Villa as an Asian American artist. As Stuart Hall famously notes in his essay, Cultural Identity and Diaspora, “Cultural identity is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being,” and the variety of approaches in Villa’s work speaks to that constantly evolving state of becoming. The current show at MCCLA is an excellent example of the broad scope of Villa’s ongoing concerns.
Upon entering the gallery at MCCLA the viewer hears a recording of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” sung by manong Freddy, one of the tenants of the original International Hotel who was involved in the long and bitter struggle to save that Manilatown landmark. The audio track immediately locates Villa’s work in Filipino America and reinforces the deep cultural connection that informs all of his work. Other suggestions of Pinoy culture are found in Where My Uncles Went West, a tall, shallow rectangular box with geometric white lines painted on a black background–both the box and the lines resemble doorframes, suggesting the entrances and exits of the immigrant experience. The side panels of the piece also pay tribute to the various journeys of the manong in their travels from the Philippines and throughout the U.S., with inscriptions including “Cebu to Fresno” and “Watsonville from Honolulu” suggesting the travels of first-generation Filipino Americans in their search for itinerant labor. Centered between the door-shaped geometric lines is a porkpie hat, another significant element of manong culture. Here Villa evokes the transitions and translocations faced by those Filipino immigrants from the early 20th century, suggesting both their origins as well as their destinations.
The show also includes a sampling of Villa’s earlier work, including some beautiful geometric studies on paper as well as photographs of several plywood sculptures that presage some of the work that makes up the bulk of the MCCLA show. A series of large-scale, hand-built wooden boxes marked with carefully drawn lines on colored backgrounds, this body of work is a good example of the way that Villa’s non-representational pieces echo the concerns found in his more culturally specific work.
The boxes at the MCCLA show are hinged panels that are displayed in the gallery’s center. The viewer is able to circumnavigate the boxes, seeing both their painted and etched “front” as well as the structural supports of the “back,” thus evoking packing crates, suitcases, and other forms associated with transiency and migration. Beautifully hand-etched with precise, closely spaced parallel lines, these pieces are displayed ajar, both opening and closing, echoing the transitional mindset of many immigrants.
Like Ruth Asawa, another great Asian American artist of the same generation whose carefully crafted non-representational work defies easy categorization, Villa is biliterate and bicultural, belonging in many worlds and utilizing a multitude of frames of reference. By refusing to fit neatly into a single, simple classification, Villa’s work redefines what it means to be an artist, a Filipino American, and an American.
Carlos Villa: Manongs, Some Doors, and a Bouquet of Crates
August 13- October 5, 2011
Mission Cultural Center for Latino Art
2868 Mission Street, San Francisco CA 94110 (map)
An Evening with Carlos Villa
September 17, 6:30-9:30p / FREE Admission
Mission Cultural Center for Latino Art
Join Carlos Villa and distinguished guests for a night of storytelling and dialogue, as we celebrate the release of Villa’s new monograph, Carlos Villa and the Integrity of Spaces, edited by Theodore S. Gonzalves.