Absence as Catalyst for Social Change – William Cordova at Saltworks Gallery

William Cordova's (NAP MFA Annual 2003) recent show in Atlanta [Saltworks Gallery; September 16 – October 29, 2011] búscame en el torbellion: but also time itself is a complicated knotwork of imagery that potentially provides a rich discussion. - Read the full review by Atlanta Contributor, Paul Boshears, after the jump.

sin titulo (geronimo II), 2011, reclaimed brown paper bag, aerosol can, feathers, coin wrapper, courtesy of the artist and Saltworks

Cordova has made a name for himself by trusting his viewers to parse his strong visual vocabulary and this generosity between what are, effectively, strangers is telling. Although works such as sin titulo (geronimo II)—an assemblage on the gallery floor that includes a reclaimed paper bag, aerosol can, feather, and coin wrapper—or the massive, by comparison, this one 4 u (pa' nosotros)—an installation comprising wood studs, plywood, fabric, drywall, a projection of Peter Spirer's documetary Tupac: Thug Angel (2002) and the audio to Federico Garcia Hurtado's Tupac Amaru (1984)—may not immediately touch the viewer as an opening to conversation, with some reflection and linguistic researching the show transforms. The title of the show itself is an imploring command to a familiar or colleague to seek [me, or the speaker] out in the whirlwind or in a tumultuous emotional state; this one 4 u, we see, is also for us (pa' nosotros). The show itself is dedicated to a recently-departed and dearly missed artist, Charles Huntley Nelson, Jr. with whom Cordova had worked several times, including a group show at Saltworks gallery in 2005—The Sweet Flypaper of Life.

this one 4 u (pa nosotros), 2011, wood studs, plywood, dvd, fabric, drywall, Tupac Amaru (1984) Dir. Federico Garcia Hurtado, Tupac: Thug Angel Dir. Peter Spirer (2002) , courtesy of the artist and Saltworks

Any presentation of William Cordova and his work will introduce his transience, moving throughout his life between Lima, Peru; Miami; New York—and Atlanta, however briefly—as somehow explaining why his work is predominately preoccupied with languages both aural and visual. “But what about time itself?” asks the subtitle of the show. The works on display all suggest that time itself is fleeting: small portraits (Monuments, 2004-2010) hovering just above the floor present run-down cars and memorial candles with bottles strewn about; the serial works from 2009-2011, untitled (amauta) include an installation of reclaimed paint swatches, custom frame, and broken glass on the floor, as well as a reclaimed wooden crate, stones, coal, and a vinyl record. Amauta, it should be noted, is the knowledge that the Incan peoples received from their ancestors—perhaps I am not over-reaching in suggesting that the knowledge one's ancestors will pass down necessarily enhanced by the vanitas of what is practical in the face of lifespan too short. This emphasis on the economy of living is bolstered by Cordova's discussion of his signature Polaroid 600 diptychs. The photos themselves may not necessarily strike a morbid note in the viewer, but the memories of this soon-to-be dead technology cannot help but invoke in a certain demographic the memories of a time when Polaroid photographs were the predominate medium by which one's childhood was recorded in family settings. Like quality photographs, memories must tell lies in order to convey their truths.

Monuments, 2004 - 2010, suite of 12 drawings, courtesy of the artist and Saltworks

Initially photographs were declaimed for their lack of artful rendering of their subjects. Unlike drawings or paintings, which presented the opportunity for an artist to share an ideal image of a subject, the photograph presented only what was in front of the lens at that moment. During the turn of the 20th century this lack of artistry actually worked to increase the value of photography as a medium for sharing reality, “the camera doesn't lie,” became the dominant thinking. The “reality” of what the photograph captured in its apparatus led some to proclaim that every photographic image presents a few millionths of a lifetime. Cordova's works challenge this atomistic, sedimentary accounting of what composes a life.

My sense after being with his materials on view at Saltworks Gallery is that Cordova understands life to not be only punctuated by absence (you're not here, then you're born, then you're not here because you've died); but rather that our lives, constituted by memory, are shot-through with absences. His playful-yet-desolate suite of drawings, Monuments (2004-2010), would be the perfect accompanying illustrations to Salvador Plascencia's sumptuous—but literally full of holes, when an ex-girlfriend's name is physically removed from the book—novel People of Paper (2005, McSweeney's) featuring the shells of old cars and a melancholic magic intervention still possible through the proper invocation  of how things were once done.

Cordova states in the notes to his show that through viewing (and I have to assume, actively contemplating) the overlapping multiple narratives that fuse these alternative perspectives, social change is possible. It is this call for social change that makes Cordova's show in Atlanta work, in a manner that the show wouldn't work in another city. For decades now Atlanta has been “the city too busy to hate,” and a place where hideous history is cleanly replaced after the amnesia of neglect has ossified. What was once the site of race riots is now a strip mall, where there used to be the shacks of the destitute workers there is now a squat collection of over-priced condominiums and restored bungalows. As appealing as these developments may be, Atlanta is the second emptiest metropolitan after Detroit. With this absence in mind, it seems, Cordova insists in describing the compositions as being formed from reclaimed elements. I would argue that it is here, in the reclaiming, that the operative phrase for social change is possible in William Cordova's works.

untitled (amauta), 2009, reclaimed wooden crate, stones, coal, vinyl record, courtesy of the artist and Saltworks

What is being reclaimed is not an ideal form of a brown paper bag. Cordova's friend, Charles Nelson, Jr. being a graduate of Howard University (an historically black college in D.C.) would nod, knowingly at this reference to the 20th century tradition among Howard students of not allowing people into the party that whose skin tone was darker than a brown paper bag. The act of reclaiming in Cordova's work is not about holding onto an old way, but of apprehending the lessons of the relationships that interacted and produced these objects. This apprehension leads to appreciation, an increase in the value of what is at hand. It is in this process of making familiar and sitting-with that social change is possible and Cordova's attempts at sparking those conversations is to be lauded.


Included in the 2003 MFA Annual while earning his degree at Yale UniversityWilliam Cordova was born in Lima, Peru, and his work has been exhibited a great deal internationally. Based in Miami and New York, Cordova was featured in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, and his work has been included in several renowned exhibitions including NeoHooDoo: Art For a Forgotten Faith, co-organized by The Menil Collection, Houston, and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City. He has been in residencies across the country for the last seven consecutive years, most recently as an artist-in-residence at Project Row Houses, Houston, where he curated the exhibition eco, xiang, echo: meditations on the african, andean & asian diasporas. Cordova was also recently the subject of the Spotlight feature in edition #86 of New American Paintings.

Paul Boshears is a cultural critic living in Atlanta and is on the editorial board for BURNAWAY.

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