A kind of warm-hearted anarchy has been set loose this month in the main galleries of the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum. There, Wilmington, California–based artist Mario Ybarra Jr.’s The Tío Collection builds off of the idea of extended family. Some of Ybarra’s uncles either live in or grew up in Santa Barbara, and all of them participate enthusiastically in the Mexican-American culture of Southern California. For this show, the artist has selected a wide variety of emblematic objects that he or his uncles collected and has recontextualized them by placing them in the gallery, complete with display plinths, wall texts, and identifying labels. In this far-from-simple conceit, Ybarra embeds his stealthy agenda, which is to open up the focused and reverential ways of seeing typically associated with museums and galleries to the world at large. In a video accompanying the exhibit, he states his intention to send visitors “back into their relatives’ homes to see where their own family is creating culture, if not in the sense of high art, then at least at the level of style.”
Ybarra likes to play with the idea of the museum, using galleries as spaces in which to assemble personal collections that stand in some ironic relation to the sorts of dioramas and vitrines ordinarily found in ethnographic or natural history exhibits. For example, when he was included in the 2008 edition of the prestigious Whitney Biennial, Ybarra arrived with his friend Angel’s elaborate collection of Scarface memorabilia and proceeded to create a “Scarface Museum” within the exhibition, riffing on his friend’s personal mythologization of Al Pacino’s portrayal of hyper-violent drug dealer Tony Montana, while simultaneously holding up conventional categories of art and non-art to scrutiny and reflection.
In this show, Ybarra deploys visual wit and irreverent acuity in the way that he appropriates the aesthetic signatures of mainstream art’s validation process. But The Tío Collection is not all an institutional critique. For Ybarra, tone is crucial, as he’s a true maven, as adept at storytelling and making ordinary social connections as he is at playing the critical theory dozens on the art world. The two sides of his practice come together particularly well in this exhibition, which stands as another link in CAF’s ongoing exploration of the possibilities of post-postmodern, post-identity-politics versions of contemporary art.
At the core of each of the exhibit’s elements stands a personal story, some episode connecting the object, the uncle, and the artist. For example, the giant wall of jigsaw puzzles reflects the story of Ybarra’s Tío George, who was in a devastating car accident at age 18. In the painstaking process of his uncle’s rehabilitation, these puzzles were a key exercise, helping him to regain his memory and small motor control. Slanguage, the arts workshop that Ybarra created in Wilmington, customized his Uncle Jaime’s barrel-shaped barbecue grill in order to send a dual message of remembrance for his uncle’s dog Cisco and a warning to those who might try to freeload on the grill. Such down-home touches are frequent, as are the equally important messages of Chicano power and resistance displayed in such objects as Ybarra’s father’s paintings.
The thread that connects all this disparate material, from Uncle Claudio’s “Black Widow Killer” (a wooden paint paddle) to the artist’s collection of toy figures, is the bittersweet quality of family memories. Ybarra’s extensive collection of Transformers and the like makes a good example. Despite the apparent care with which these toys have been preserved, they stand in for others that were not so lucky. “My mother once burned my toys in the backyard,” Ybarra said at the opening. “She must have thought they were full of demons, and I was only 9 or 10, so there was nothing I could do about it. These survivors are in the show because they remind me of that.”
Mario Ybarra Jr.: The Tío Collection will be on display at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum through September 30. For more information call 966-9222 or visit sbcaf.org.