Abandoned, discarded, rejected, dumped.
The language of trash is the same as the language of love’s labors lost.
And all of these words don’t imply a painless “letting go,” a mutually agreed closure or something carelessly left and easily forgotten, no casual affairs here. This is the language of the toss out, the ejection, the elimination. But those things (and people) so unceremoniously thrown away have lives after the fact.
Once they’re both out on the side of the road we may possibly enter another phrase common to both, they can be “picked up.” Which is to say that value is an open game, when something crosses from one state to another, from useful, maybe beloved article to garbage to new useful item, the transference is one caused by desire (or lack thereof). That love’s labor lost, as in Shakespeare own oeuvre, can just as easily be won.
Certain objects might lead stranger lives than we often care to acknowledge. The tragic tale of the donkey used thoughtlessly as chattel in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthasar or the brown paper bag happily drifting through the American West in Tom Robbins Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, both the donkey and the bag led fraught lives, rarely acknowledged by their human owners and were unceremoniously discharged when their usefulness had come to an end. These things that we treat as objects have origins, lives, stories. Artist Camilo Ontiveros works the various layers involved in the transient lives of objects. Not just as they sit, but as they shift and move through time and space.
Artists have often worked with refuse from Duchamp’s famous Fountain to Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat, to thousands of other gestures sometimes famous, oftentimes not. But the abandoned items in Ontiveros’ assemblages come from certain context and places, their multiple uses become like the multiple meanings of poem, their social-political subtext give them weight, their references to art history deft and their presence as objects (a bit battered, a bit dirty, a bit coarse) is ultimately compelling.
In the series Deportables, with one chapter of this saga installed here at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, the objects Ontiveros chooses are not slick fetishes, affirmations of the purity of wealth, but rough hewn rogues, their beauty is not their finish, but their texture. On the walls of his installations one could find mattresses rapped tightly into balls with thick, coarse rope or that same rope leading to a gyrating washing machine, dancing in the air.
The tied up mattresses look like a sadomasochists tool, the rope binding the beds into the softer side of John Chamberlain. But the objects are not formal interventions, but rather like its Arte Povera predecessors, they are evidence of Ontiveros attempting to make art in the scale of life.
But whereas Chamberlain was obsessed with form and the Arte Povera artists like Pennone and Merz were driven primarily with experimentation, Ontiveros takes lessons from both but refuses to wholly place the results of his investigations into the white box. The scale of life is one with social and political implications.
Mattresses, like the ones Ontiveros uses, found on the side of the road in San Diego are collected, wrapped up tightly into balls with rope, stacked in the back of a truck, and taken across the border to Mexico, where they are without value in one context, taken across the border, the contexts shift and the value changes. In Mexico, they still retain value, the process of collection, importation, and distribution on the informal economy is one where the collector can turn profit for his troubles. But Ontiveros, perhaps taking a cue from the streetside entrepreneur, has claimed these mattresses as well and made them into art, shifting their value from one state to another. Ontiveros’ work compliments the entrepreneur, but takes the value in a different, less direct direction.
These political realities are further acknowledged in the play of the series title Deportables, which combines “deport” with “portable.” Though one is a person that’s expelled from a country and the second is a thing that can be moved, make no mistake that the ease in which the object can be moved across borders is not shared by its human counterparts, no matter how like objects they may sometimes be treated.
In this current exhibition, Ontiveros has taken a battered washing machine and tied with the same coarse rope as the mattresses from a multitude of angles so that it hovers six inches above the ground. The rope leaves the gallery through the balcony and enters another, it tethers itself to walls in the stairwell; it creates a difficult to navigate web. When you enter the space, you’re forced in some way to interact.
Though its process is made obvious, it’s effect is no less arresting. Even though we are carefully explained the trick, it retains a magical element. Divorced neither from its materials or the social context from which it was born, Ontiveros’ work pulls the art object to realize another dimension.
This battered machine (remaindered, abandoned, and deportable) gets to for once in its utilitarian life have a little agency. Despite its age and weight, its sad state, this machine gets to fly and gambol through the air, if only for a moment.