Review by Stephen Gambello, August 3, 2023
Curator Emireth Herrera Valdés' exhibition, "Invisible Hands," honors the dignity of migrant domestic workers by elevating them to a noble status.
"Invisible Hands" examines the hardships of domestic labor, the prevalent racism within their hierarchy, and the remarkable ways each individual transcends the seemingly mundane, laying the foundation for dreams to flourish.
Dulce Pinzon transforms her subjects into iconic comic book superheroes. In the photographs, "Bernabé Méndez from the State of Guerrero works as a professional window cleaner in New York. He sends 500 dollars a month" (2004-2005) and "Catwoman - Minerva Valencia from Puebla, works as a nanny in New York. She sends 400 dollars a week" (2007), poetically reimagining the lives of the window cleaner and the nanny. Pinzon shares glimpses of the Mendez and Valencia families back in their home countries through Kodak Ektachrome, evoking the tender intimacy of old family photos. Their selfless acts of sending a large portion of their salary per week to support their families highlight the sacrificial nature of their labor.
Jamie Martinez's "Me-Ya-AJ, My Mother's Labor" (2023) is composed of terracotta sculptures that pay homage to his mother's labor by immortalizing the tools she used as a cleaning lady–an iron, dustpan, and brush. Through Mayan hieroglyphs, Martinez's artwork becomes a testament to his heritage and the forceful spirit of his mother. The spiritual ritual of reenacting cleaning actions before working on each piece adds a layer of significance, cleansing his family's history and cementing it as a generational legacy.
Born to undocumented parents, Jay Lynn Gomez's experience as a nanny informs her art, as seen in "Las Meninas, North Fairing Road, Bel Air" (2013, 2018) and "Gardeners, Doheny Dr., West Hollywood" (2012, 2017). These photographs of workers portrayed on cardboard cutouts, Las Meninas and Gardeners, reduce manual labor workers to two-dimensional, easily replaceable extensions of property, calling attention to the dismissive treatment many face. Gomez collaborates with Patrick Martinez in "Against the Wall" (2019). This installation features a painting of a wall and hedges, with a painted cardboard cutout of a gardener precariously perched on a real ladder, exposing how the ruling class often views and treats these laborers as expendable commodities. With a taped-up foot, the gardener continues to work through his injury, as he lacks workman's compensation insurance protection.
Margarita Cabrera's "Saguaro" (2016) from the "Space In Between" series depicts the migrant workers' journey by symbolizing their resilience and determination. Made from border patrol uniforms and replete with embroidered designs such as a heart, flower and sun, the cactus represents the obscured yet insistent personification of humanity. The collective limbs of the migrant workers mirror the cactus arms, showing their ongoing courageous labor in the face of capitalist barriers.
Luis Alvaro Sahagun presents "Limpia No. 14" (2022-2023) in a multimedia presentation of textures, colors, and shapes. The artwork is encased in a resplendent golden Baroque frame reminiscent of the 17th century, discovered in an antique shop. This exquisite portrait is transformed into a living tabernacle of Shamanic healing and cleansing (limpia in Spanish translates as clean), becoming the embodiment of the artist's cousin, Elisa Chang Nuno. At the heart of the artwork, an image of Elisa during her time as a teen beauty queen exudes an aura of success and accomplishment. Through Sahagun's artistic veneration, Nuno assumes the dignified presence of an Elizabethan monarch, bestowing upon her a moment of tranquil nobility.
Abang-guard (Jevijoe Vitug+Maureen Catbagan)
No More 24! May Day Tapestry, 2023
50 x 60 inches
Catwoman - Minerva Valencia from Puebla, works as a
nanny in New York. She sends 400 dollars a week, 2007
Photography, 30 x 40 inches
Ready-made iron covered in non-fired clay with
Mayan glyphs, ready-made dustpan with brush
covered with Mayan glyphs
Iron: 10 x 6 x 5 inches; Dustpan: 4 x 9 x 13
inches; Brush: 4.5 x 11 x 2.5 inches
Betty Yu's "Working Stories" (2019) invites us to reflect on the plight of domestic workers in their own words. Flanking a steel plaque protesting the violation of domestic workers' rights, we find two portraits of nannies who were interviewed for this project. Recordings of these individuals express their impressions and frustrations regarding the injustices they endure, such as long hours and low pay. Listening to their perspectives takes us beyond our context and grants us a genuine understanding of how their existence is compromised. Their experiences become our own at that moment, immersing us in a tangible and genuine connection to their lives.
A piece that appears to emerge from the wall is Zac Hacmon's "Sentry" (2021), a marble lobby pillar adorned with a red fire extinguisher, which, at first glance, resembles a doorman attired in a red coat uniform. The person's voice emanating from the pillar's air vent (located beneath the fire extinguisher) belongs to artist Hernando Restrepo, a doorman himself during the day. With Restrepo's voice, Hacmon infuses the industrial, rigid structure with a distinctly human essence. On the wall beyond the structure, Restrepo features "In the Realm of Thoughts" (2023)—a trompe l'oeil artwork depicting postcards taped to the wall—a restrained and dignified homage to his hometown of Cartagena. Restrepo's painting also reveals his ongoing fascination with linear patterns. The seemingly chaotic and overlapping letters at the bottom of the painting, some in English and some in Spanish aspire to a more open and airy imagining of the future, symbolized by the lovingly detailed images of clouds and water—an artistic representation in and of itself.
Abang-guard (Jevijoe Vitug + Maureen Catbagan) presents "No More 24! May Day" (2023) "Tapestry," a creative reinterpretation of the tapestry "The Unicorn In Captivity," envisioning caregivers protesting being rounded up. Vitug and Catbagan work as security guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, motivating them to incorporate the museum language in their work. The caregivers' captivity lies in their exploitation as foreign commodities, akin to the Unicorn's original depiction. Caring for the infirm represents a vital and humane service in our society, making the corporate and political exploitation of caregivers a distortion and corruption of their innocent intent to provide compassionate care amidst their daily, challenging, thankless, and underappreciated duties.
Abang-guard's "Care Guardian" (2023) creates an Anti-Slot Machine featuring an overworked healthcare worker represented as a golden sculpture, pushing an infirm person in a wheelchair. The sculpture has hit a negative Jackpot of partially corroded or oxidized pennies, symbolizing the meager wages of many healthcare workers, often off the books and barely worth more than the contents of a bedpan. This evocative artwork is housed within a clear glass display case, juxtaposing the presentation of an old painting style and a sculpture with the museum's vernacular, effectively communicating the injustice memorably and artfully.
"Invisible Hands" opened with "Clean Labor" (2023), a powerful and graceful performance choreographed by Brendan Fernandes. In this performance, dancers Tiffany Mangulabnan and Billy Cannon dressed in disposable paint suits cleaned the gallery with rhythm and improvisation, emphasizing the physical work of domestic workers compared to the physical strain on the dancers' bodies.
This group show, curated by Emireth Herrera Valdes, highlights the unseen yet vital and perhaps even mystical enablers of the hierarchical machine that fuels our society. These workers are the silent pillars upholding our culture, yet regrettably, they often lack the ostensible appreciation or acknowledgment from the ruling class of their indispensable role.
Images Courtesy of 601Artspace / Go Sugimoto.
Border patrol uniform fabric, copper wire, thread and
terra cotta pot
55.5 x 46 x 17 inches
Zac Hacmon, Sentry, 2021 and Hernando Restrepo In the Realm of Thoughts, 2023