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Watts Towers Art Center, South Los Angeles

Note: This exhibition, scheduled to run through November 4th, has been closed due to threats from certain members of the local community. We leave this article posted, however, in recognition of what the artist has achieved as well as in protest of the inappropriateness of the coersion that has apparently taken place.--Ed.

by Betty Ann Brown

To create change, we must first imagine the nature of that change. To build a world without the infectious conflicts of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other abuses of power, we must first envision the possibilities of that world. One strategy for such imagining is to portray positive agendas in art. But for the art to transcend the propagandistic, it must speak in metaphor rather than preach.

In his new painting installation WAR, Alex Donis envisions a world in which the officers of the Los Angeles Police Department develop positive relationships with the very gang members they currently victimize. Donis’ envisioning is not only unprecedented but also humorously eroticized: the officers perform Dirty Dances with dark-skinned youths. In Officer King & Puppet a uniformed man does the Bump with a paraplegic, whose wheel chair waits empty behind him. Spider & Officer Johnson are graceful in their Lambada moves, while Shy Boy & Captain Brewer do the Hustle.

Donis has trafficked in images of same-sex transgression before. The My Cathedral series (1997, exhibited at Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco) of enamel paintings on plexiglass portrayed kissing couples like Mother Teresa and Madonna, Pope John Paul II and Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus and Lord Rama. On the exterior wall of the gallery for that exhibition he installed a painting of Che Guevara and Cesar Chavez leaning into a kiss. This was accompanied by a quote from the Dali Lama: “Anyone who puts all their energy into destroying anger will be happy in this life and in lives to come.” Unfortunately not all viewers accepted this sentiment. Donis’ installation was vandalized twice in the first two weeks of the exhibition. In response Galeria de la Raza held a community forum for discussion of the issues that remain central to Donis’ art: gender identity, queer sexuality, cultural fantasy, and the nature of social structures. As the artist stated at the time, “In our community, which is part of a democratic society, we must all realize that freedom of expression is not a privilege but a right, and that all artistic expression must be respected and allowed a voice.”

Beyond Donis’ right to image the world, there is his chosen task of imaging a world beyond the prejudices that divide us. The current exhibition is presented in a neighborhood location historically marked by violent schisms. Depicting police and gang members, these paintings portray precisely those who have executed most of that violence. But Donis has not created tombstones or memorials mourning the losses of the past. Instead, he has used the shock and humor of good art to point us towards healing.

After Donis’ My Cathedral was vandalized the seond time, an anonymous viewer (or group?) erected an impromptu altar on the sidewalk. Several candles burned atop a blue milk carton. Nearby were written the words “Tolerance, love, and acceptance.” Which is precisely what the LAPD and Los Angeles gang members must embrace to co-create a world without WAR.

Donis’ WAR images are accompanied by a soundtrack that the painter created in collaboration with video and sound artist Morgan Barnard, an epic poem by Keith Antar Mason, and a catalogue with essays by Mason and art historian Jaime Villaneda.

“Shyboy and Captain Brewer,” oil
enamel on canvas, 5’4” x 5’4”, 2001.

"Popeye and Sgt. McGill,"
oil and enamel on
canvas, 5'4" x 7'.

“Officer King and Puppet,"
oil enamel on plexiglass,
41 1/2 x 28”, 2001.

“Spider and Officer Johnson,"
oil enamel on canvas,
5’4” x 7”, 2001.

“Young Crip and Young Blood," oil enamel on plexiglass light box, 28 x 82", 2001.