2015 has been an especially frightening year in Los Angeles, the unofficial "gang violence capital of the US," with city's first steady increase in gang-related crimes in 12 years. In July, a burgeoning street war even got a hashtag: #100days100nights. Fear spreads quickly when we try classify human beings as "others"—be they marked by tattoos, preferences, or the colors of their skin—but Mexican artist Renato Garza Cervera fights that instinct with his overtly political sculpture series, Of Genuine Contemporary Beast.
Cervera sculpts young Latino males grimacing on the floor, skin-colored rugs shaped like skinned bodies tattooed with words associated with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street Gang. "They represent a group of Latin American and US-established societies who live in a difficult set of circumstances due to an odd system of political, economical, social issues, which are out of my reach and comprehension," he explains to The Creators Project. "It would be really hypocritical and unfair in my position to say I understand them."
This idea is at the core of his sculptures, which can be frankly horrifying to lay eyes on. He admonishes the label of hyperrealism ("I just laid on a big paper roll and asked my brother to outline my silhouette with a pencil," he explains of his process), but his craftsmanship is as undeniable as the gut discomfort his work inspires.
When he first began the series, the feeling was palpable. "Back in 2005, I saw a lot of TV reports, read newspapers and magazines, as well as internet information," he says. That saturation, along with then-recent reads of Michel Foucault, Thomas Hobbes, Shakespeare, and more influenced the work, but the biggest impact may have come from Christian Poveda’s documentary about the rivalry between MS-13 and 18th Street Gang in El Salvador, La Vida Loca. Poveda was killed by members of the latter in El Salvador for being an "informant"—an event that has had a profound impact on the Mexican Cervera's work. "When you speak of the gang problem in LA you are also talking of the gang problem in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Culiacán, Mexico City, and a numerous group of American cities and abroad," he explains.
Cervera's perspective, however, is just a small slice of a large and ever-changing picture. Some studies suggest that gangs are moving out of the city, and one Pacific Standard reporter says, "street gangs have been retreating from public view all over Southern California," and that they're "far less present and active," than in the previous five years. The fear is still there, though, Cervera explains through his work and words. "History has proven that some minorities have been used for scapegoating," he says. "MS-13 and 18th Street Gang, as well as Talibans, Arabs, Mexicans and Latin Americans, women, gays, and in other moments and contexts jews, communists, have been 'Calibanized.'"
We spoke to Cervera about his own experiences with gangs, the process behind Of Genuine Contemporary Beast, and how he hopes the series will affect people's perception of the gang problem in LA.
How bad is the gang problem in Los Angeles?
I have been to LA several times in the last 10 years. The three times I got to see different kinds of extreme violence in public spaces. Some of it was gang-related, and also you can very evidently get notice of social and racial violence on various levels. Actually two rugs were shown in downtown LA back in 2006, not far away from MacArthur Park, which is one of the iconic places where Latin American gang history in the United States can be witnessed.
We have to understand the fact that LA is a city where you can find in a very obvious way the presence of numerous gangs, (White supremacy, Crips, Black Panthers, Mexican Mafia, Mara Salvatrucha, and 18th Street, etc.), so it’s a melting pot not only for gangs but a diverse panorama of crime-related activities.
The problem of gangs in Los Angeles, as well as many other countries (Almost all if not every country, I guess) is really bad. I’m thinking more specifically of organized crime. Many examples of countries, institutions, academies, markets and corporations from around the world being run by gangs can be placed here.
When you speak of the gang problem in LA you are also talking of the gang problem in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Culiacán, Mexico City, and a numerous group of American cities and abroad, which are related in terms of drug production / trafficking / consumption as well as numerous varieties of crime / violence which remunerates important amounts of money to a lot of people worldwide.
What is your personal relationship like with MS-13 and 18th Street Gang? What do they represent to you?
I’m not related to these gangs. They represent a group of Latin America and US-established societies who live in a difficult set of circumstances due to an odd system of political, economical, social issues, which are out of my reach and comprehension. It would be really hypocritical and unfair in my position to say I understand them.
In my mind as well as almost every mind of anyone who is not an MS-13 or 18th Street gang member, they can easily become examples of extremely anomalous ways of life which totally defy the establishment in a very violent way.
They represent, to almost anyone who doesn’t belong to these gangs, in a very strong way and more importantly than a lot of other social groups the fact that almost all societies apparently marginalize minorities which, very sadly I declare, makes me comprehend and understand this processes, but never justify them. This estrangement process is actually the main concern of this series. I will elaborate further.
Where did the idea for Of Genuine Contemporary Beast come from?
Years ago I was watching TV at the house of an ex-girlfriend. We were watching an animation shortcut where a funny monster had in the floor of its house a green and red dotted hippopotamus rug. So I thought, 'That rug is quite anomalous: it’s not made out of a typical beast. It’s not a lion nor a tiger nor a bear. Those rugs apparently no longer represent fierce creatures, now they are endangered species: So what would nowadays be a beast or represent an animal-like, barbaric kind of bestiality?' And then I remembered a TV news program coverage of the Mara Salvatrucha where a bunch of almost naked, tattoo-covered, strange hand signal-making guys were all together in what appeared to be a zoo cell. It was quite dehumanizing. And immediately I recognized the dangers of presenting people as beasts.
The OGCB Beast series doesn’t actually speak deeply about the gang problem. In my opinion it deals more with the monsters every culture and civilization has inside its communal imagination. In a very drastic comparison these rugs would work as piñatas: they represent dark, evil characteristics of a society, which are destroyed in a collective feast at the end of a year. I refer, with these objects, to the idea of estrangement with the term “monstrification” or “Calibanization,” remembering William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where the character Caliban represents the absence of beauty, grace and intelligence.
How did you decide on the materials for the face and skin?
Real human corpses could actually be obtained in sketchy and “off the record” situations back in the 90s and even in the 2000s in Mexico, (maybe even today). Artists like Joel Peter Witkin and Teresa Margolles, among others, had already been working for a time with human remains, but then I realized not only I wasn’t very much into the idea of using actual organic remains (I wouldn’t even dare myself to taxidermize an animal), but also it would be even more incorrect in political terms to make this objects “safe” by using no real human remains, as well as “safe” and “legal” materials. I was interested in provoking that the questions aroused by these objects wouldn’t precisely be: “Where did you get the skin?” or “How much did you pay for it?” So I decided to use leather, polyester, poyurethane foam, glass eyes, smalt paint, and wax colored pencils for the tattoos.
When I made the first rug I wasn’t able to put all the tattoos I wanted, and also I understood some of the images and symbols I wanted to use could actually relate more precisely in individual sets. Those were a couple of important reasons which helped me decide to make a group of six individual sculptures. Also I got to know that MS-13 and 18th Street were two rival gangs, so I made three MS-13 and three 18th Street rugs.
What kind of research did you do to make an accurate depiction of a skinned human? That couldn't have been pleasant.
Well, actually I do not consider it an accurate depiction. I just laid on a big paper roll and asked my brother to outline my silhouette with a pencil. I also used a mirror during the modeling process (I remember getting tired of wrinkling and making odd faces), as well as a series of photographs I took from my family and friends. I modeled by hand the face, the feet and hands, without having at any moment an individual reference of a person, because that would transform the project into a portrait. The OGCB series is the portrait of no one, as well as of a lot of people, so in a way, it is a tribute to a group of persons.
Some time after the first works of the series were made and I started getting feedback some persons would show me pictures of real human flayed skins, and let me tell you: my works do not resemble the real ones at all.
Some people call me a hyperreal sculptor. I couldn’t care less about hyperrealism. I feel more importantly related to crappy taxidermy, like the one you can find in any Natural History Museum Worldwide. That’s definitely more rich in formal terms, in my opinion, than the boring anatomical precision and spectacular lameness so appreciated by anal minds who hype Ron Mueck and those tasteless hyperreal suckers.
How did you research and choose the tattoos for each sculpture? What do a few of them represent?
Some tattoos were at hand back in 2005 on the internet. Even though you could find a big amount of FBI-censored blogs and websites, some images of MS gang members original tattoos were available. Some of those tattoos were actually jail tattoos. Other tattoos I depicted were related to social, religious, and cultural issues. Also every rug has an amount of really intimate, highly open (in an interpretational order) tattoos, which are the ones I find particularly disturbing and rich because they “de-monstrify” or “humanize” the characters represented, giving them in some cases even names or names of individuals supposedly related to these fictional individuals, as opposed to the standardized and more conventional jail or MS tattoos.
Of course I reviewed some tattoo books and magazines, and asked people who were acquainted with these themes.
How do you hope people react to the artworks?
I hope they understand the project deals with “Calibanization.” It’s an aesthetic consideration of collective political, social and psychological mechanisms and patterns. I hope I made artworks which don’t need a lot of theoretical references and texts in order to relate to different audiences and groups of persons, apart form the art world, and of course I hope these objects help us to generate reflection about ourselves.
Does portraying gang members as skinned animals imply MS-13 and 18th Street Gang members are animals?
History has proven that some minorities have been used for scapegoating. MS-13 and 18th Street Gang, as well as Taliban, Arabs, Mexicans and Latin Americans, women, gays, and in other moments and contexts, Jews, communists, have been “Calibanized.”
“We are all animals, some are better game,” a friend would say.
Do you see a productive way to fight gang violence in LA or in general?
Certainly there are a good number of examples of reformation, reintegration, etc. Stanley “Tookie” Williams, and many other convicts who have made great contributions to civilization are great examples. We have to start using a major amount of our brains. Contemporary societies focus on sections of the right hemisphere. I’m sure that would make a difference. Most people flow in reptilian brain mode, including some leaders!
Education is an answer, specifically education which improves empathy and collaboration. Passion is another answer, when you create a system where the most high aspiration is money you get sick societies. Contemporary societies seem, in general, to be really unhappy. I believe in transformation and will. I don’t think it’s available for everyone. People who really change are usually strong and, sadly, the least in an increasing majority of cases.
Do you have any other projects going on at the moment? What's next for you as an artist?
I’m making a trophy head representing Carlos Slim for my bathroom, but that´s actually more like a house-improvement project. I’m also working on a gorilla hand ash tray the size of King-Kong’s hand, which will actually be used in different bars and pubs throughout Mexico and abroad. Besides from that, I’m making a music band which will play boring philosophical songs in crappy pubs for bored audiences and making tattoos for hot chicks.