KHFA exhibition archives

Gil Rocha/Victor Calise Blanchard

January 8-February 19, 2022
Opening reception January 8 from 6-8 pm
Featuring a spoken word performance "El Tren" (The Train) by Maritza Bautista
Main Gallery

Essay by Susie Kalil

Who are we? Where are we? There are plenty of reasons to wonder, especially since the reference points we usually rely upon to situate ourselves are so many and so easily mistaken for others bound to lead us astray. What happens when we step outside our usual environments, only to find that we cannot go back, or that once back nothing seems the same? Rather than pose the simple questions that might shatter the illusion of reliable normalcy, we would just as soon pretend that we are sure of our surroundings, and sure of ourselves.

Gil Rocha, The Studio, 2021, collage, 14" x 17"

At Kirk Hopper Fine Art, artists Gil Rocha (Laredo) and Victor Calise Blanchard (Houston) examine core issues that we are often reluctant to address. In the process, they challenge us to recognize something about ourselves and our border society. These artists work in radically different modes but share an activist stance: both reveal the mechanisms of power and vulnerability by literally and figuratively stripping away layers of aesthetic and behavioral pretension. At issue is the notion of skin—a membrane that wraps and protects us, but can just as easily be made vulnerable, as well as eroded and ravaged.

Gil Rocha, Displaced Center, 2021, 4' x 7' x 1'

Rocha's collages, assemblages and sculptures demonstrate an anti-aesthetic—a tendency to employ only the most functionally necessary means to execute a concept and to eschew qualities that make traditional art attractive—beauty, sensuality, rich material. Similarly, Blanchard's "Talisman" paintings and two-sided, light-activated sculptures are prickly, abrasive and confrontational. Neither aim for a comforting sort of art, nor do they believe in the object as one of passive contemplation. Rather, Rocha and Blanchard intend their works to be provocations, the kind of shock treatments that jolt us into an examination of our own values and behaviors. There's good reason for it: an increasing struggle over ideas and control is going on in our society. Accordingly, their works examine how hierarchy is expressed—who is included and who is left out.

Both aim to get us to experience the reality of the sociopolitical and moral matrix in which we are inextricably bound. Evident is a renewed focus on material decision making and through it, on the poetics of seeing to display the mind in operation. At the same time, notions of high and low, organic and artificial, cerebral and ornamental blend together. Aiming for an intensely personal language, they employ abstraction as a form of representation, the transgression of media boundaries, fragmentation, layering, and seeing one image through another. The issues raised by their works are very much of the moment—the legitimacy of the inauthentic, the haunting transformations of childhood experiences that kick around in our adult memories, conflicts between the rendered and the real, and the renewed aura of the handcrafted object. Both artists use a mechanism of "play," a measure of spontaneity either in execution or presentation, employing elements from the visual panoply of popular culture. As such, Rocha and Blanchard are masters over their fabricated worlds.

Victor Calise Blanchard, Rather Upsetting Developments

Just a glance around the KHFA galleries tells us that this work is loaded with gut-clutching qualities eager to expose the vertigo of get-and-spend society. Rocha and Blanchard know too well the tightening grip of the forces of reaction, the increasingly homogenous production approved for mass consumption. From the desperation of the streets—the border of Laredo, the Third Ward of Houston—they create a formidable visual and verbal lyricism. Both aim to negotiate the image glut that permeates our visual sensibility. Direct and unmannered, even exhilarating, their sculptures, assemblages, collages and talismans dovetail sources from a tough vernacular—trash heaps and backyard castoffs, old handpainted signs and commercial products in Spanglish, industrial wires and punctured sheetrock—into densely choreographed scenarios that accelerate in frenetic rhythms.

Only a few artists are able—or willing—to walk the plank for the courageous and risky freedom that can shock one moment and infiltrate a sense of being the next. Yet directions in this movement toward an authentic street art continue to be thrust from below, from the "rasquache" underdog perspective of "making do" with cast off bits, and a life begun quite literally underground by graffiti wild-style writers who stake their claim on a postindustrial world. What they invoke is the construction of language, identity and communication, the means by which people understand themselves as men or women, black, brown or white. For the most part, identity is constructed very badly with hundreds of ways of being anything offered up by mainstream culture—it's all fragments, falsehoods and contradictions. What's at issue is not only the difference between wealth and poverty, but a deeper and older set of oppositions between the private and the public, the self and world at large, success and failure, hidden obsessions and our daily passage with one another. And those oppositions seem to make less sense each day.

Everything at KHFA seems ready to burst apart or collapse together. Throughout their installations, Rocha and Blanchard balance a vital, pulsating energy with an unmistakable eloquence of touch. Evidence of the hand, of course, represents the personality and very soul of each artist. Rocha and Blanchard re-empower the hand—snipping, spraying, building, stacking, nailing—a seismographic recorder of the eruptions and tremors on the fitful paths of their nerve endings. This tension gives their works the agitated and altogether unsettled quality of something seen for the first time.

Gil Rocha's sculptures and assemblages are about growing up between two worlds and its memory—political, sexual, violent, personally intense and specific. Carefully packed carriers of life, death and loss, they set loose a cascade of multilayered meditations on the complexities of human connection. "Lawn Chair" features a folded Pedigree dog food bag on which are neatly stacked books about immigration and a basketball. Placed in the chair is a plywood board with two basketball player trading cards, the price 2.90 stenciled in green, a blue looping wire, a plastic bag draped at the edge, and a metal dog perched at top like a crown. The two mismatched wheels, like prosthetics, are an effort to make the entirety whole and mobile.

In "Displaced Center," three stacks of shoeboxes serve as pedestal for a large slab of sheetrock on which are applied more trading cards connected by looping, circuitous wires. Rocha explains: "While reading, reflecting and observing, flashes of memories come to mind. Things like when I was a kid, I would spend hours at the Boys and Girls Club, playing basketball, among other games. While working on this piece, it became visually playful—the sheetrock became the court, the wires became the trajectory of the ball. The path. The orange plastic pieces are also used on bicycle spokes as decorative elements, at the Boys and Girls Club, one particular day, we were given tennis shoes. We were told they were confiscated at the Laredo bridge because they weren't real 'Converse' shoes."

Rocha always seems to be measuring up close then at a distance—removing objects from contexts and placing them beside others for comparison. It's in this complex, contradictory and rich mix of the border that Rocha finds himself, a region where Latin and Anglo strains of culture meet, clash and fuse. With their blunt-force assertions, their challenging irony, their earthy sexuality and their embrace of life as a big, messy possibility, his sculptures and assemblages are both serious and accessible, connecting us to our own feelings of having to endure an often absurd, unfair world.

Similarly, Victor Calise Blanchard uses content and form in a jarring juxtaposition that forces us to question not only how we see, but what we see and what kind of images we value. He excavates decayed, overlooked materials as points of intersection for multiple voices, styles and attitudes that make up our cultural terrain. The quasi-shamanic, or "Talisman" works, composed of chopped and spray painted faux panels with a "topknot" rope handle, feature force fields of stenciled forms—arrows, triangles, circles, lightning bolts—a kind of big bang in a state of infinite expansion.

A shape seems recognizable only for an instant before transforming into related forms that interlock and overlap at some points, diverge at others. Evocative of Native American Kachinas and Chinese landscape paintings, combined with random scrawls of graffiti, the compositions are breakneck, but also convey a measured contemplation that balances gut appeal and practiced smartness. With its electric pinks, mint greens, and screaming yellows, "In the Mix" is edgy and ambiguous, calling up Pop, as well as 80s California surf culture and comic book illustration with draftsmanly finesse. High and low skid in space and do pratfalls in a way that seems out of control. Blanchard dices things up, only on an unusually personal level. Significantly, the "Talisman" works reflect his desire to document the performative aspects of graffiti by translating the gestures of the street within the formal constraints of the gallery.

They demand a scanning gaze able to sift through the details, thereby shuffling fragments of information that seem only haphazardly related. Provoking a complex array of emotions, Blanchard's playfully chaotic works suggest that our aesthetic and moral responses are not always neatly aligned. This itchy, under-the-skin and haunting tension is put to a taut balance in the two-sided sculptures "Forms of Identification." Secured by red "erector set" braces and painted red framing devices, each is light on its feet and self-assured. Like two sides of a coin, the sculptures reveal aesthetically "correct," pleasurable and emblematic design conscious elements on one side, counterposed by derelict, slangy materials and "radioactive" industrial lighting on the other. On these surfaces, Blanchard pours solvents and burns gasoline, adheres signs, "Know Loitering," alongside anti-cop pig caricatures and buzzy graffiti gestures in glowing colors. Like yin-yang talismans, they straddle the joyful and ominous. That double edge animates their flickering surfaces, collisions of warped and bashed metal and painted images.

Blanchard's sculptures are well-built objects that refuse to give themselves away. Their fun-house distortions trump the color contrasts and, while dimly lit, capture our attention like a shadowy back alley. "These refer to my interaction with peers in a cultural sense," says Blanchard. "Growing up, I was considered racially ambiguous. As an adult, I'm constantly forced by the government to be categorized, to select forms of identification. What side do you prefer? And what does that say about your barriers?"

In each of their installations, Rocha and Blanchard question the systems of order we impose on the world and on ourselves. By finding situations where they break down, they reveal how fragile reality is and how much it's based on shared assumptions and definitions. What does all this mean? Perhaps they see America as an eternally hybrid experiment, charting a commonality between explosive personal narrative and smashed-up spare parts. Truth to tell, we never know what's coming. Rocha and Blanchard touch on lost innocence, even a recoil from—and subverted relish of—our give-us-more pleasure that has spread to society. In a world of brute excess, their self-knowledge is a kind of grace.

Victor Calise Blanchard, In the Mix
Gil Rocha, Untitled, 2021, collage, 7" x 9"