By: Anya Ventura

RISD Museum • Providence, RI • risdmuseum.org • Through June 9, 2013

Alejandro Diaz, Ongoing series of cardboard signs, 2003–present. © Alejandro Diaz. Courtesy of the artist.Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.
Alejandro Diaz, Ongoing series of cardboard signs, 2003–present. © Alejandro Diaz.
Courtesy of the artist. Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.

Naked Artist Inside advertises an electric sign outside the RISD Museum of Art. As part of Alejandro Diaz’s RISD Business, the sign announces a humorous yet complex show that stretches outside the boundaries of the conventional exhibition to examine the idea of value in life and art.

Diaz’s playful institutional critique is densely layered with art historical references, pop culture allusions, and everyday speech acts that poke at the contemporary sphere of activity known as “art.” He transmutes the art world, a luxury industry, into a gimmicky sweepstakes, yet more importantly deploys the vernacular, commercial, and institutional languages of classified ads, cardboard and neon signage, marketing promotions, readymades, and, yes, museum exhibitions, to comment on the condition of being a Mexican-American artist under late capitalism.

Diaz flexes his curatorial muscle with the creation of the Diaz Foundation, riffing on the Dia Art Foundation. The meta-exhibition, culled from his own collection, features a mishmash of Mexican folk culture, pop, and contemporary works by the artist and others. For democratic effect, he intersperses the work of famous artists such as Koons, Lichtenstein, and Warhol alongside the authorless artifacts relegated to ethnography, Mexican earthenware, and African carvings. Curator Judith Tannenbaum’s ceramics are even included in a clever role reversal. The result appears not unlike the museum’s own mid-century gallery bent to Diaz’s cultural and political predispositions. He has assembled his own personal canon, a reshuffling of value.

With a Warholian sensibility filtered through the lens of Latino visual culture, the work displays a winking, freewheeling capitalist readiness. Visitors can take a picture (suggested donation: $5) with a cardboard cutout of the artist’s activist aunt, win a signed toaster with the purchase of a membership, or buy a sloganed t-shirt in the gift shop. At the show’s opening, Diaz’s witty cardboard signs (Make Tacos Not War)—the mode of address of the disenfranchised, the homeless, and the dissident—were on sale for $20. In turning the rarified art exhibition into a Final Blowout! Everything Must Go! fire sale, Diaz captures an irony-tinged sliver of the American dream. He’s in on the art world hustle—a gilded hustle, but a hustle nonetheless.

—Anya Ventura

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