Fantastical and surreal, Luis Gispert’s photographic and video amalgams are visually rich explorations of cultural codes. Featuring eleven large-scale glossy photographs from two recent series and two looped videos, Gispert’s exhibition at Artpace illustrates a concern with, and critique of, various urban subcultures in America today.
As a young Cuban-American, the artist brings an insider’s perspective to an investigation of ethnic youth culture, exposing incipient ties to music, power and gangland activity by constructing modern tableaux based on the iconography of Western religious art, specifically, from the Baroque and Renaissance periods. Asserting that hip hop is the contemporary Baroque, Gispert adopts signifiers from that subculture to address societal views and investigate identity politics.
Utilizing what is a somewhat fetishized figure, the cheerleader, and removing her from her normal conditions, Gispert draws in tangential issues of sex, drugs and gang warfare in a slightly humorous and innocuous way. He poses young women in cheerleading outfits—primarily Latinas—against vivid, chroma-key green backgrounds in seemingly minimal compositions. On closer view, however, details emerge—gaudy gold jewelry, makeup and elaborate body positions (often set-ups with suspension wires)—substantiating an intricately layered underlying concept. These are not simple documentary photographs; instead, they are complex, composed arrangements that delve into the familiar and the unknown, the mainstream and the marginalized, to expose and address the various subcultures currently infiltrating the mainstream.
Gispert also attempts, while using the social leveler of a uniform (in this case short pleated skirts, short socks, gym shoes and V-necked sleeveless sweaters), to erase the sense of “other” so pervasive in our society. Functioning as a critique of race relations and varying levels of marginalization, Gispert’s work also addresses hip hop’s trajectory from an African-American subculture adopted by Latinos, to its current place in the mainstream. The artist’s inclusion of excessive bling bling and various gangland signifiers—guns, hand signals—is indicative of this crossover.
Luis Gispert, Untitled (Dinner Girls), 2002/2003
36 x 80 inches
Collection of the artist
In Untitled (Single Floating Cheerleader, a.k.a. Hoochy Goddess) (2001), Gispert presents a floating cheerleader against his signature chroma-key background (the green screen used in film production before the addition of fantastical or computer generated scenery) in a manner reminiscent of a product shot. In this image, Gispert’s young woman is adorned with rings, bracelets and huge gold earrings; a gun-shaped charm hangs from her neck. Her hand signals fluctuate between the invoking of a Hindu goddess and the codified gestures passed between members of a gang, again reinforcing concerns with not only American subcultures but the artist’s interest and research into traditional thought and religions. Gispert draws unusual correlations between Hinduism and urban life, once again demonstrating his concern with multiculturalism and the re-appropriation from which new visual and verbal languages within subcultures are formed.
Expanding out of the cheerleader series and into Urban Myths Part I, Gispert invests more personal iconography. In this series, he uses his familial home or friends’ or relatives’ dwellings as the settings. However, as seen in Untitled (Dinner Girls) (2002/2003), the artist still occasionally utilizes uniform-clad young women and a chroma-key background. Here, three cheerleaders appear to be holding a séance around a dining room table. With eyes closed and hands (with long, elaborately painted press-on nails) raised to form gang signs, the girls cause their excessive jewelry to levitate around their necks. Their trinkets—money symbols and thick chains—are absolutely contemporary yet undeniably linked to the ornate, traditional decor of their surroundings.
With Untitled (Bedroom) (2003), Gispert draws a more direct association between past and present, traditional and contemporary. A woman in a traditional wedding dress, opulently decorated in gold lace and thread, sits on the edge of a bed in an old-fashioned room decorated with framed pictures, matching lamps and multiple knickknacks. With hands folded and an upward gaze, she appears in a state of prayerful mediation. In front of the woman, and unacknowledged by her, floats a large boom box with multiple speakers. In this photograph, Gispert again mingles the language and subtext of various cultures, blurring the line between lowbrow and refinement.
This in-between point is so engaging in its ambiguity. Gispert’s exposure of the collision of tradition and urban culture hovers between fiction and reality and coalesces in a peculiar but powerful vision. He brings forward questions of where we fit in, of our choices in adopting particular facets of different cultures to create a new sense of self—essentially, what it means to be multicultural. Gispert, while not providing answers, lures us into his curious world.