Cardboard Currency

Alex de Leon builds a shantytown on the economics of the underpass

The poet Ezra Pound once said, "Good art can not be immoral." But can art be amoral--can it exist without any moral claims whatsoever? Is art lacking when it doesn't teach us a lesson, when it doesn't give us ballast and orientation in the proverbial sea of abandon in which we find ourselves? Can there be such a thing as cutting-edge or avant-garde art without political positioning, without making a social promise? Is there any room at all for morality in contemporary art? If you were to look at the work of the young English artist Damien Hirst, his sensational glass-boxed cow's head being gnawed away by maggots, your answer would be a resounding no. You might chalk up moral position-taking to a bygone era when things like hierarchy and standards, beauty and meaning, held purchase over all else in art. But if you were to look at the work of the young Texas artist Alex de Leon and the miniature cardboard shantytown he constructed from signs bought from homeless people, you would concede ever so gingerly yes, there is room for moral statements in art today. And they can even make for art that is provocative.

While de Leon considers his installation at the Dallas Center for Contemporary Artone that makes a moral statement, he staunchly claims "not to be preaching." There is a difference. Simple moral statements can be subtler (on rare occasion, one must admit) than the heavy browbeating of out-and-out preaching. That de Leon's statement is based more in observation than call to action, in an almost journalistic purveyance of the facts at hand rather than revolutionary agitation, makes the morality of his work so subtle that it is easy to swallow.

Confronted on a daily basis by the pleas of homeless people in his neighborhood, de Leon found himself frustrated by his own financial limitations yet nevertheless wanting to help. Scribbled with phrases such as "will work for food, God bless you," or, in a more humorous vein, "old lady in jail, need cigs and six-pack, God bless you," their signs beseeched drivers-by at street and highway intersections for money, help and recognition. De Leon decided to turn his contributions into a mode of economic exchange, paying each homeless person a standard price of $3 for his or her sign. This way, his money was not mere charity, but legitimate payment for services rendered. At first an intuitive response and only later becoming part of a willful art project, de Leon's amassing of homeless signs registers boldly on the radar screen of middle-classdom. De Leon's motivation sits somewhere between the there-go-I-but-for-the-grace-of-God angst many of us know well and the scrappiness and tempered greed that, when combined, constitute the force of small-business enterprise. Obsessive gathering gave way to a new idea, production and form. And ultimately his motivation came to fruition in the form of installation art as, in paying journalistic homage to the condition of his neighborhood and his nomadic neighbors, de Leon constructed a Hoover-ville in miniature out of the signs he'd been collecting.

Alex de Leon's "Welcome Homes," 2003
Alex de Leon's "Welcome Homes," 2003

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is on display through June 12 at the Dallas Center for Contemporary Art, 214-821-2522.

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At the head of de Leon's Lilliputian town is a church, also fashioned from homeless placards. While to viewers the presence of the church resonates most immediately with the phrase "God bless you" and its repeated appearance on all of the micro-architecture, it is a reference to another form of exchange occurring in de Leon's neighborhood. De Leon describes the local church's form of "charity"--to provide the homeless with food and shelter in exchange for indoctrination and work--as payment for their commitment to proselytizing the gospel. Placed harum-scarum next to the church are some 30 to 40 houses that de Leon has glued together from his collection of homeless signs. Adjacent to the village in miniature are three video monitors and one video projection. Showing an ongoing rush of cars from beneath a highway overpass, the video on the three monitors has been taken from the artist's studio window, which is situated slightly under the highway. The larger projection has been taken from the same cocked and underneath position but depicts a collision--an overturned semi-truck. Above the small town hang more placards. The emphasis here is on the space underneath. Not only do these people often occupy spaces beneath bridges and overpasses but also the underneath of class. They are members of the underneath, the dirty underbelly of capitalism itself.

As for beauty and form, there is a formalism of the ad-hoc--an aesthetic of the on-the-spot--at work in de Leon's installation. De Leon documents what he has seen and experienced using the detritus of other lives. It is an intentionally minor formalism, a beauty of urban spaces that is brought home in the video capturing cars speeding down the freeway and in the projection of a highway accident. But traditional form is not the modus operandi of this particular installation. Rather, this work is about a way to exist within an impossible urban setting, about people who occupy the interstices of a city--an urban realm consisting only of interstices and no center.

De Leon's quiet moral point may go unheeded because we find ourselves universally beyond moral point-making in the art world. The lofty ideals of modernism's avant-garde have gone unrealized, and the promises of revolution and social transformation in the early 20th century were not kept. These so-called failures seem to forewarn us against moralizing and promising ever again. Yet de Leon's installation causes us to pause and question the local exceptions to this universality. Perhaps in other parts of the world there is little need to make moral points. Though doesn't being in Texas--the state from which our illustrious boob-leader has come--make us more open to some sense of morality? Doesn't living in what a friend of mine described as "the most hated city in the most hated state in the most hated country in the world" make us somehow more responsible for unpacking moral conundrums?

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