It was my first time visiting the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts when I went to visit the current exhibition: a survey of recent work by the Bay Area artist, Carlos Villa. Upon entering the gallery, I had no expectations and limited knowledge of the historical background and importance – not to mention the oeuvre – that encapsulates Villa’s career. The exhibition houses an overwhelming collection of large works on wooden panels and doors. The doors leaned against the walls, while some of the pieces on hinges hung flat whilst others were hung by only one side so that the adjacent panel swung out from the wall at various angles, causing the viewer to carefully choose her path navigating the gallery to circle around the pedestals and rogue panels to fully experience each piece from the best position, to see the insides of the hinged wooden crates, the part that tells the story.
Doors and crates alike are each painted and contain a methodical set of engravings often taking the shape of a line that runs down the piece of wood and sometimes in other directions to create a pattern inscribed on the surface. Aesthetically minimal and abstract, the pieces hold a cultural currency even not knowing Carlos Villa. One gets the sense, from the titles and studying the patterns, that each deliberate, chiseled line expresses a trajectory of memory and experience. Carving these lines with an awl represents a process of removal of mass from the boards, but the monumental display of these pieces emphasizes that this exhibition simply and aesthetically unpacks the culmination of years of work and conceptual practice.
Villa’s work is embedded in his personal and cultural history. Decades of being involved in art movements and using his Filipino familial heritage as a basis for developing his diverse artistic practice, Villa, like the patterns on theses pieces, has mapped and created new paths that connect past with present, urban culture and migrant communities, history and art, performance and paint.
In Rebecca Solnit’s book Infinite City, which discusses the historical displacements of the Filipino community in San Francisco that Villa is a part of, the artist Jaime Cortez is quoted as saying:
What feels really beautiful…is the restlessness of the city. It’s a restless organism; individuals are being moved in and out, processed, but this also happens to whole communities. They arrive, arise, fluctuate, diminish. It’s very fitting that the city has all around it the restlessness of the ocean, that constant shifting of tide that’s echoed in the shifting of populations.
Such is the beauty that Villa’s work harnesses. While urbanisms continue to ebb and flow through the city streets, art movements come and go and varied populations connect and dissect our cultural fabric, it is really special to contemporaneously experience the work of an artist who has been keeping the pulse on and rewriting a certain history his whole life.
—Kara Q. Smith
Images: Installation views. Courtesy of Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts.