Narcoculture’s Intertwined Beauty and Horror: Eduardo Sarabia’s “Drifting on a Dream” at The Mistake Room, Los Angeles

October 29th, 2017  |  Published in October 2017

Are there any media that Eduardo Sarabia doesn’t employ? The Guadalajara-based, Los Angeles-born artist’s current show features ceramics, sculptures, drawings, paintings, murals, photos, performance documentation, and a video, which together add up to an engrossing installation addressing the fantasies, violence, and symbolism of narco-culture. Sarabia’s first hometown solo show in almost 10 years and part of PST: LA/LA, this unorthodox retrospective features pieces from various bodies of work. Augmenting the exhibition’s eccentricity, the absence of a checklist forces the viewer to see all works as one installation.

Though Sarabia has shown in high-profile commercial galleries, this unconventional decision not to list individual works, titles, or media affects anti-commerciality apropos to the contraband theme and apparent ethos of The Mistake Room, an eccentric non-profit gallery that obliterates the second word of its own name in promotional materials. Sarabia’s diversity of media evokes the mixing of cultures and industries that define borderlands and accompany international trafficking.

Installation view, Eduardo Sarabia, “Drifting on a Dream” at The Mistake Room, Los Angeles.

The video is most striking by virtue of its pervasive soundtrack and projection on a large, double-sided drop-down screen in the center of the gallery. In contrast to its conspicuous size and placement, its disjointed, low-budget filmography appears as that of a DIY YouTube or Instagram clip.  It shows a man visiting the Culiacán, Sinaloa shrine of Jesús Malverde, the patron saint of drug traffickers.

“¿Qué quieres?”  (“What do you want?”), a disembodied voice repeatedly asks the visitor in the video.  Ostensibly, the voice is that of Malverde himself, paranormally speaking through his ceramic bust representation. This scene is not quite as fantastic as it seems; for, believing his spirit capable of granting favors, many actually do make pilgrimages to the sanctuary for this gallant Robin Hood-like folk saint unrecognized by the Catholic Church. In the video, it is implied that the visitor wants money or success; and Malverde agrees to grant his wish. One may infer that the visitor must provide something in exchange, like maybe his soul.

Given the context, the makeshift filmography is reminiscent of videos posted by cartel members who employ YouTube to publicize their execution and torture scenes, gunfights, and lavish parties. It’s interesting that such incriminating videos are posted, and authorities do nothing, while less graphic videos in our own country are censored on the same website.

Eduardo Sarabia, “Codex”

Green vine-like vegetation is painted on gallery walls. Interspersed among the vines are several 2D pieces on paper. One titled “Codex” and appearing in Aztec or Mayan style depicts a giant cowboy boot embellished by a snakehead in a stylized jungle. Three flamboyantly costumed men with assault rifles stand above the boot.  Below are five men wearing only shorts and white hats. They appear indigenous, perhaps lower in the hierarchy, and employed by the armed men above. Three of them are occupied with knives beside the giant boot. Are they constructing or destroying it?  The nature of their activity is unclear. Below them are two caped figures holding round items of uncertain identity, kneeling before a cooler emblazoned with “OXXO,” the name of a Mexican convenience store chain. Sarabia’s quote in a Hyperallergic article elucidates its significance: “A few years ago, there was a newspaper image of OXXO styrofoam coolers with the headline, ‘Heads Found Inside Coolers.’ For me, it was the height of the drug war and how terrifying it had become. It was a message of power for all to see.”[1] In “Codex,” Sarabia casts cartel violence as a reincarnation of the grotesquerie sometimes seen in Aztec codices; but his less overtly graphic imagery is more in line with contemporary narco-culture’s glamorous veneer.

Nearby, other paintings depict a more respectable form of commerce: mezcal or tequila production. In one section of a split-panel composition, workers process and pack the goods; in another, partyers enjoy the product. As in “Codex,” hierarchies are implicit. These pieces’ proximity to others relating to drug trafficking implies the interconnectedness between legal and illegal commerce. Perhaps it also hints at the potentially exploitative nature of modern mezcal and tequila production. Agave beverages have been a Mexican tradition since pre-Columbian days, but their increasing automation and mass-production due to increased foreign demand is increasingly a source of sociopolitical controversy.[2]

Eduardo Sarabia, “Tainted Memories,” 2009, oil on canvas, 56 x 78 in., Collection of David Frankham

Large painted portraits mostly obscured by colorful abstract splotches might symbolize loss of cultural identity. Comely yet violent in their obliteration, these paintings provide ambience but are individually less interesting than other pieces charged with folkloric symbolism.

On the opposite side of the video screen is a pedestal bearing ceramic sculptures of three animals: a parrot, a rooster, and a goat. More than mere livestock, in narco-culture slang these represent cocaine, marijuana, and heroin. The norteño band Los Tucanes de Tijuana popularized these symbolic terms in their narcocorrido called “Mis Tres Animales.”[3]

Installation view, Eduardo Sarabia, “Drifting on a Dream” at The Mistake Room, Los Angeles.

Beyond the pedestal, on the gallery’s far wall is a mural portraying a multi-limbed green treetop. Could this represent a coca tree? Each serpentine limb coils around a different symbol, including a diamond, a die, a Dodgers cap, and the aforementioned animals. Flanked by two 3D quetzals, a 2D painted banner under the treetop reads “Dreamin.” Below the banner is a framed drawing of a tree stump. In a Los Tucanes song titled “El Árbol,” a tree symbolizes drug trade. Lyrics discuss governmental complicity therein, describing how officials make a show of cutting leaves while secretly watering the tree so that its roots grow stronger and spread out underground. The top of Sarabia’s dismembered tree appears representative of the fantasies of those who enter the drug trade in search of a better life; while the uprooted stump seems symbolic of the dreams of those who wish the violence would end.

Installation view, Eduardo Sarabia, “Drifting on a Dream” at The Mistake Room, Los Angeles.

On an adjacent wall is The End (2017), an acrylic and India ink map depicting quetzals flying north from Mexico. These birds are sacred ancient Mesoamerican symbols of liberty and wealth. Here, their northern migration poetically betokens immigration and trade. Some migrate northward in search of better lives; others enter the drug trade.  Mass exoduses of people emigrating to America have made ghost towns of Mexican villages; and much of Mexico’s illegal drug trade is driven by U.S. demand. American complaints of Mexican lawlessness and immigration are ironic, especially given that the Southwest once belonged to Mexico.

Eduardo Sarabia, “The End,” 2017, acrylic and india ink, 44.5 x 59.5 in. Courtesy of the artist and joségarcía, mx

Sarabia’s overall installation is rooted in notions of fantasy, failure, and the slippage between dreams and reality. Its disjointedly combined, quasi-surrealistic environment successfully evokes the feeling implied by its title “Drifting on a Dream.”

A large part of the installation includes shelves stacked with talavera ceramic vases and jars. Superficially, they appear traditional; but closer examination of their designs reveals patterns featuring the aspirational trappings of narco success: marijuana leaves, dice, weapons, and nude or scantily clad women. Nearby, a Jeff Koons-esque siren sculpture is surrounded by more symbols of drugs and wealth: dice, a horse, and assault rifles. Interspersed among the shelved jars are pieces exactly the same as components of the siren sculpture, Jesús Malverde busts, and branded quotidian cartons reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes. Seeming to belong in a factory, these tokens of mass-production speak to the pervasive dissemination of illusory dreams. They also connote the use of respectable ventures as fronts for smuggling operations.

Caption: Installation view, Eduardo Sarabia, “Drifting on a Dream” at The Mistake Room, Los Angeles.

Reflecting the anfractuousness of aspirational pursuit, the complex materiality, arrangement, and symbolism of Sarabia’s total installation evinces the convoluted interrelationships between cultures and commercial networks both legal and illegal, which no wall could possibly sunder.

–Annabel Osberg

[1] See “Making Art from Narcoculture” by Laura C. Mallonee: https://hyperallergic.com/139359/making-art-from-narco-culture/

[2] See “How Tequila Went from Mexican Farms to American Frats” by Chantel Martineau: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/05/tequila-history-mexico/392990/

[3] A translation of the lyrics is available here: http://www.laits.utexas.edu/jaime/cwp4/ncg/mistresanimales.html

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