“Seduction of Vice” by Nehemiah Cisneros
In artist Nehemiah Cisneros’s universe, violence is omnipresent. And as much as his creative realm and its inhabitants are a shameful reflection of the real world, the subjects in “Violent by Design Part II” (Part I showed March 12 through April 23 at Habitat Contemporary), prance through their surroundings in a state of nihilistic irreverence. Yet rather than dilute the artist’s message, the jarring juxtaposition of physical malice and hedonism recalls the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who opined “the condition of man is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”
Told through a captivating series of acrylic and ink on canvas works, the exhibit invites viewers to consider whether violence is programmed into our psyches by the universe, as Hobbes suggests, or if it’s merely a learned behavior — one that has been honed to a fine art through millennia of practice.
Cisneros takes particular interest in contemporary sociopolitical institutions and the way in which they visit violence and oppression upon people of color and other marginalized communities. While his work is rife with surreal imagery, the visual hyperbole and manic renditions are a sharp rebuke to modern society’s insatiable appetite for lurid, sensationalized media.
In “Cool Runnings 2,” a pair of African American convicts — replete in striped prison garb and leg irons — dash through a colorful forest as they are pursued by a pack of ferocious dogs. Rather than allowing the extent to which scenes such as this unfolded throughout the blood-soaked existence of the United States to numb us to its horror, Cisneros has embellished the piece with details that highlight the depravity. Both prisoners, for instance, are smiling and hoisting up convenience store beverages; their apparent frivolity belies the danger of their predicament. And in the foreground, an anthropomorphic frog strums a banjo whilst seated atop an oversized aluminum can.
The strength of this body of work stems from Cisneros’s deft ability to harness absurdity without cheapening or demeaning the content. It is the very juxtaposition of the bizarre colors and symbols against the grim reality of racially-motivated violence that prompts viewers to critically reflect on the social, cultural, and institutional sources of violence within our society.
One of the show’s most powerful pieces, “Black Executioners,” incorporates history to deliver its message. In an homage to the artist’s hometown, the work is set on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles. Anachronistically, the characters who inhabit this modern, urban landscape are attired as though they have come directly to us from Baroque Europe.
But it is apt to be the action that first commands viewers’ attention. An African American male, clad in a helmet and gladiator-inspired armor, plunges a dagger into the chest of a white woman whose regal finery is reminiscent of a lady-in-waiting. Most striking is the casual brutality of the image, which will inevitably summon comparisons to the racist propaganda film “Birth of a Nation.” The 1915 movie portrayed Black people as violent savages, eager to prey upon the virtue of white females, and although such prejudices have existed long before the advent of cinema, the film is a notorious example of the ways in which mass media can perpetuate and affirm racism within a society. By placing his characters in a contemporary setting, Cisneros makes the relationships between racism, violence, and media accessible to viewers in a way that a strictly historical context might fail to achieve.
Those seeking answers to humanity’s perennial addiction to violence are unlikely to find them in “Violent by Design,” but the exhibit is not meant to be a panacea for the evils of our species. Instead, it offers a compelling argument that some of humanity’s worst impulses remain as present and dangerous as ever, even as they may be easy for some of us to overlook by virtue of their tragic ubiquity.
Part II of “Violent by Design” continues at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave., through May 29. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. For more information, 816.474.1919 or www.leedy-voulkos.com. To see a digital catalog of works in both shows, visit issuu.com/habitatcontemporary/docs/violent_by_design_catalog__1_.