San Francisco-based artist Victor Cartagena is a Salvadoran immigrant who is no foreigner to painful loss. A survivor of the war that torn his country apart, Cartagena creates mixed-media works that are imbued with a nostalgia politica, a sepia-tinted lens that he trains on subjects ranging from homelessness to guns to exile. He works with found objects, coffee stains, recordings, anatomical charts and photo IDs to create pieces which skirt the border between the chaos of the real world and the focus of the studio. In one of his pieces called Happy New Year to My Friends, an outlined body of a life-size homeless man, drawn on coffee-stained paper, holds a real cardboard sign. A speaker is placed in his mouth where real recordings of homeless people are collaged, appearing at first as a random cacophony, to slowly reveal stories and songs. A human condition is revealed. Homelessness is perhaps the worst form of destierro: evicted from dignity, forced into exile in your own land.
Yet in these almost "generic" drawings of people, men and women naked and bald alike (as in his series Anatomy of La Mentira),the human emerges like a brutal epiphany. Curiously, this works as well with his series of pieces using Salvadoran photo IDs. The unsmiling, muted stares, typical of Latin American old black-and-white photo IDs, are by design intended to be "neutral." To objectively "identify" a card-bearing subject. These pictures stand diametrically opposed to the beautiful work of Sebastiao Salgado, for example, where one sees his uncanny ability to render a suffering subject's dignity untouched by the harshness of her circumstances. Cartagena's work with photo IDs arrives at the same results, but by virtue of his ability to render his subjects within a context that allows for real "identification." The beautifully documented painful circumstances of Salgado's subjects become in Cartagena a politically charged metaphor.
Thousand of small Salvadoran faces stare at us from a gallery space, creating a wall of identities that dissolve in exile, loss, desaparición. Blank stares turn uncannily alive blown-up and processed with flickering lights, or cry for help trapped inside glass vials. Others look at us from lighted cardboard boxes, next-day delivery-style.Victot Cartagena has contributed two examples of his work with photo IDs to this edition of e-misférica. The large size Wanted /Unwanted was designed as a "digital mural" and mounted on a wall in a busy intersection of the Mission neighborhood in San Francisco. The small, real black-and-white photos are placed inside Tea Bags, conjuring the reality of many migrant workers. Both take on the fate that immigrants from his native land of El Salvador, and, by extension, Latin America meet in the United States: un Norte that lies, cheats, uses and discards, a nostalgia of the absence of things present, such as dignity, home, y un poco de verdad.