The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Nikki Moore, May 19, 2006, Arts

"Christening: Ali Fitzgerald and Cruz Ortiz"

The Donkey Show, through May 27

While I fully support the fact that neither art reviews nor art shows come with PG, PG-13, and NC-17 ratings, I do want to warn you that the Donkey Show and this review are not for the faint of heart. Opened by recent Bard graduate Risa Puleo, the Donkey Show is a metaphor for exactly what you think it is: the U.S./Mexico border phenomenon that smacks squarely of bestiality, theatrical production, voyeurism, and power plays of all kinds. If you are not familiar with the reality behind the Donkey Show's name, let me ease you into where this story is going.

In "The Christening: Ali Fitzgerald and Cruz Ortiz," the first exhibit of the Donkey Show gallery, the featured artists have taken a risk in the seemingly unfinished technical quality of their work that pays off in the solidness of their conceptions. Fitzgerald presents a group of paintings called "The Donkey Family Portrait," which depict something like an "under the Big Top" scene gone awry. Lifting stereotypes from her research into eyewitness accounts of the Donkey Show as it can be seen on the Texas and Mexico border, Fitzgerald's work begins to mythologize the real-life characters and participants in this spectacle, including not only those she calls the "socially impotent businessmen," college frat boys, and beer-drinking policemen enjoying the show, but also the women involved in the performance itself, who, at the behest of Fitzgerald's paintbrush, are half-human, half-donkey, and often half-Fitzgerald herself. If this seems like too many halves, it isn't: In the artist's self-portraits and the gallery project as a whole, Fitzgerald and Risa Puleo both seem to be wrestling with their own shifting complicity in the Donkey Show they are re-creating. The whole project raises the question: What exactly does it mean to call your own home-turned-gallery or larger-than-life demi-panorama painting a Donkey Show of any type? The work and gallery name hit so near our deepest taboos, if not an utterly tragic situation for the women who are paid and possibly coerced to perform, to excite, and to blow beasts of burden in their own burdened conditions. Yet who the victims of these spectacles are isn't entirely clear either: Fitzgerald's work asks whether it is the women on view or the spectators-cum-gallery-viewers who, by a trick of the painting's gazes, are the real pitiable demons of the Donkey Show. From her self-portrait in the director's chair and her gaze from the seductive donkey girl at the heart of the performance, Fitzgerald's paintings repeatedly ask: Who is performing for whom? Who's reveling in the act of seeing or being seen? And after all of these questions, are we still at the Donkey Show, or have we now moved into the sacred space of art questioning itself, once again, in a metaphor that disturbs as it describes?

Cruz Ortiz, former Artpace resident and internationally exhibiting artist, tells another narrative of life at the Border. From Latin lover to Latino in shades, Ortiz's drawings work through the stereotypes, cyclically romanticizing and distancing viewers from the border life he outlines in almost comic-strip-style illustration. And then, on the floor in front of his drawings sits Ortiz's now-familiar rocket and a group of cardboard blocked letters reminiscent of his Artpace work, which spell out "GANAS." Puleo offered me the following translation of the word: something like "it takes balls." But I would argue that it takes that and more to do what Risa Puleo is doing – it takes a willingness to risk discretion for the sake of hard-pressed reflection. While Ortiz's work is engaging, Fitzgerald's paintings, the gallery name, and Puleo's gallery conception are provocative in a way that only the strongest incitements to thought can be. Whether you're strong-stomached or not, the show is not to be missed.

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