The work of visual artist Victor Cartagena defies stylistic or cultural categories. Cartagena’s installations, paintings, assemblages, and video-based work shift easily from medium to medium, while remaining resolutely provocative, causing his audience to think carefully about what are often thorny topical issues.

Cartagena left his native El Salvador in 1985 and came alone to San Francisco at the age of 19, fleeing a bloody civil war that had begun in 1980. As a result, Cartagena’s early work drew on his experiences from that terrible time of suffering, exploring memories and images from his experience of the civil war. As Cartagena’s work developed, he began to turn his eye to his adopted home and beyond, taking on several of the major issues of the 21st century.

Spark visits the Galeria de la Raza for Cartagena’s “Invisible Nation” show, which deals directly with the challenges that many immigrants face when they arrive on American shores. Several of the works in the exhibition draw on a collection of passport portraits that Cartagena acquired from a photo store in downtown San Salvador. Since the outbreak of the Salvadoran Civil War more than 25 years ago, over 2 million people have come to America from Cartagena’s native country.

Arriving as refugees, many Salvadorans became low-paid laborers. Cartagena addresses their stories in an installation called “Labor Tea,” a pun on the word “liberty.” Affixing the small photos to tea bags, the images are repeatedly dunked into teacups filled with water. As Cartagena explains, it’s a strong commentary on the back-breaking work many recent immigrants perform, which sucks as much energy as possible out of the laborers before they are replaced with others.

Cartagena’s work also relates to local issues in San Francisco’s Mission District, like homelessness and gang warfare — issues that have touched the artist directly. Cartagena’s younger brother got involved with gangs and was shot. Partly in response to this, Cartagena created “Bang Bang Toy Gun,” an installation that combines dozens of toy guns suspended from the gallery ceiling with video images of young boys shooting toy guns directly at the camera. The piece speaks to a culture of violence that the artist sees in America, which he feels is supported by the Second Amendment to the American Constitution, which guarantees the rights of citizens to bear arms. The installation draws relationships between play violence and the real life violence that is part of the everyday reality of many young people, both here and in war torn regions.

Cartagena draws on contemporary world events in his work and the manner in which he has experienced them. On the eve of the Iraq war, Cartagena was at a dinner party with friends. Despite the fact that Cartagena and his friends were concerned about the impending invasion, they did not discuss it. The experience helped crystallize an idea that the artist had been exploring in his scrapbooks, eventually leading to “Con los Ojos Vendados (With their Eyes Blindfolded).” The installation features an elegantly set table, with blindfolded faces made of bread dough served on the plates. The work evokes images of war prisoners and hostages, but also suggests American’s detachment from the war, far from the horror of the conflict.

Victor Cartagena has exhibited throughout the Bay Area at Southern Exposure, Palo Alto Cultural Center, the University Art Museum at UC Berkeley, Galeria de la Raza, New Langton Arts, Ampersand International Arts, Intersection for the Arts, Catharine Clark Gallery, Euphrat Museum, the Mission Cultural Center, MACLA/Center for Latino Arts, and the Sonoma Museum of Visual Arts, among others. Cartagena has also exhibited in New York, Philadelphia, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Japan, El Salvador, Spain, Belarus, Ecuador and Greece. He has served as Artist-in-Residence at ZEUM, Southern Exposure, and SF Art Commission’s WritersCorps, and has taught at New Age Academy.

Victor Cartagena 19 January,2016Spark

View Cartagena educator guide

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