Friday, April 15, 2011

The Smell of Freedom

One of our friends named Minh immigrated to the US from Vietnam as a teenager. He tells the story of when he and his family arrived in Guam. Riding to the military base from the boat in the back of a pick up truck, he smelled the air and thought to himself, "That's the smell of freedom." After being in a communist oppressed country, everything was new and beautiful to him. Years passed and he never smelled that particular scent again. But while visiting a friend in New York, he smelled it. He excitedly exclaimed to his friend, "I smell it. That's the smell of freedom!" His friend was puzzled. Undeterred, Minh explained his first impression of being on free soil and how powerful a feeling it was to him as a young man and how he associated that smell with the smell of freedom. This was the first time he had smelled the same scent since his first moments on free soil. His friend said, "You like that smell? Dude, that's a skunk."


Last night I went to an artist talk at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston by my friend and fellow artist, Jonatan Lopez. Jonatan and I first met in October 2008 during Fresh Art's MADE FROM IKE exhibit benefiting Americans for the Arts at the Caroline Collective. I immediately liked his work and almost as immediately, commissioned him to make a pit lantern for us out of our old Weber grill. He and I have been in several shows together since then. We have lots of mutual art friends, and consequently run into each other on a fairly regular basis at various openings and art events.

Ours is an unlikely friendship. He's Latino, young, and energetic. I'm a middle aged white woman. Lately, he's been more and more extreme in the message that's attached to his art. Me? I'm the exact opposite. Very unextreme -- in life and the art I create.

I like Jonatan. He's kind, friendly, thoughtful, a hard worker -- qualities that I admire in anyone. He's a real go-getter. He's constantly exhibiting and expanding his repertoire artistically. He's moved from metal sculpture to performance art to installations to film to curating -- he's talented. Did I say he's talented? In the last two years, some (not all) of his shows have exhibited a decidedly darker view of life. Religion, sexuality, politics -- all are fair game in his artistic expressions, always pushing the envelope, and in his own words "questioning and defying mainstream views." Whether or not I agree with his "in your face" message doesn't mean that it's not OK for him to preach it.

His current work is clearly striking a cord within the Houston art scene. Good grief. He was giving an artist talk at the Contemporary Arts Museum! Last year he had an exhibit space at Project Row Houses. Those are big deals. I like Jonatan. I like him as a person. I believe in him as an artist. He's incredibly talented and thoughtful. I can fully endorse his (as he called them) decorative arts, including the two pieces in our own personal collection.

The current religious, sexual, and political work is causing me a crisis of conscience to endorse. It's hard to separate this newer art from the message. The message is the art and the art is the message. It doesn't mean that I don't like him; it's just that some of his art is not what I would ever choose to display in my living room, except, of course, for the two pieces that we already own.

Jonatan's artistic freedom of expression is applauded and accepted, especially by the art elite, or at least it seems that way. I'm pretty open to artistic freedom. I don't even mind that Jonatan creates what he creates. More power to him -- honestly. I'm continually impressed by Jonatan's artistry. I want all the best for Jonatan. What really happened at the talk last night, and the reason for this extended explanation, was that I was uncomfortably bombarded by Jonatan's political, sexual, and religious views through his artistic expression. I just wasn't expecting such a visually graphic lecture. Shame on me for being naive.

I'm proud of him for all that he is accomplishing in the Houston art scene. Freedom of expression should smell sweet to all of us, whether we have a crisis of conscience or not.

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