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Also published on El BeiSMan, a literary review based in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago

In the exhibition of the art of Eduardo Sabarbia in El Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca, there's one piece that, at first glance, appears to lack irony.

After viewing the historical irony of a stock certificate that demonstrates that the purchaser has invested $2500 USD in the artist's search for the treasure of Pancho Villa;...

…after viewing the political-economical irony of rows of shelves filled with hand-made but standardized cultural objects, apparently destined for export;...

…after viewing the bitter irony of large vases in the Talavera style decorated with images celebrating the world, the guns, and the products of the drug cartels;...

…the visitor enters a long room at the end of which is a poster or placard in the familiar hand-painted style of graffiti, with letters dripping with urgency that read: LOVE IS THE ANSWER (AMOR ES LA RESPUESTA). Is the artist telling us what he really believes?

It's a lot more complicated than simple belief.  Upon closer inspection, the poster reveals itself to be a piece of weaving, a tapestry of wool. Each drop of paint, each blurry stain has been woven by hand. The immediacy, the transgression, and the hurried gestures of graffiti have been rendered in the artisanal practice of weaving, a practice as comforting as it is profitable. The furtive art of night has been re-expressed in the collectable art of day.

This transformation bears a family resemblance to that perpetrated by Jeff Koons when he created gigantic, shiny sculptures in the form of balloon toys, sculptures of exquisite craftsmanship (executed by his assistants, of course -- Koon is the artist-as-entrepreneur, the boss of the workshop, not a craftsman himself). In this family of transformations, the meaning resides in the physical materials: the cheap, the everyday, the ephemeral is converted into an art object through a change in its mode of production, from a process that's more-or-less easy to one that requires great skill.

Sabarbia and Koons may be cousins but they aren't brothers. The goal of Koons' art is to deliver the maximum aesthetic pleasure (for the kids playing the plazas of the spaces that present contemporary art) and the maximum post-modern sophistication (for the curators of the those spaces) while at the same time delivering the minimum possible ideas about the world that surrounds the art. It's as if Koons is pursuing an ideal almost romantic in its extremity: art in which the the level of social ideas approaches absolute zero. It's a quest well-suited to wolves of Wall Street who buy his art: art without ideas or values, an art of brilliant surfaces and nothing more. In the art of Koons there is only one idea: the joke of its mode of production.

Mexico doesn't have the luxury for a project like that of Koons, which is to say, it doesn't have the same confidence in the virtue of making money, a confidence which is itself a form of luxury. In Mexico, the wolves are the leaders of the drug cartels and they shamelessly reveal their true natures: as criminals, murderers, and rapists. Needless to say, the drug dealers are empty-headed consumers of opulence. They have already achieved the goal of Koons: the absolute zero of ideas. The joke is that the wolf has all the money and all the power (but the joke isn't funny).

Like Koons, Sabarbia has changed the mode of production; like Koons, Sabarbia is an artist-entrepreneur who hires artisans (or so one assumes); but unlike Koons, Sabarbia hasn't elevated a cheap and ephemeral toy to a museum object; he has transformed a piece of rage and vandalism -- however positive its message -- into an object constructed with care, a tapestry woven by skillful hands, an object artisanal and traditional.

So what is Sabarbia saying by means of this transformation?

Is he saying that the immediacy of graffiti is no protection against clichés? That dripping paint is a mannerism that can be imitated by artisans with eagle eyes trained on the tourist market? That the messages of graffiti can -- and no doubt will -- be transformed into tourist items for export?

Or is he saying that love might actually be the answer?

All of the above, I would say.

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