A few people who dropped by Sierra Arts Gallery last week figured that the bright decorations and cheery paper flowers being hung up were for a Cinco De Mayo celebration. The gallery did hold a reception for the artist, Justin Favela, and it did happen to be on May 5, but party décor wasn’t really his first priority.
Favela, who’s from Las Vegas, uses a visual vocabulary that comes straight from piñatas and parties. In the past, he’s made works such as a room-sized depiction of a desert landscape at the Denver Art Museum; life-sized, 3-D likenesses of low-riders, including one for the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles; and a realistic-looking outdoor motel façade for the Life is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas—each covered with fringe-cut rows of tissue paper as if they were giant piñatas.
In the Sierra Arts exhibit, Favela has covered the walls with these fringe-cut strips, adding shrine-like collages and cascades of oversized tissue paper flowers, placed as if someone with a small budget and a huge heart had decorated for prom.
While the festivity is unmistakable—and while Favela does like to play around with the difference between fine art, affordable party décor and interior design—his goal here is, to a large degree, to talk about identity and visibility.
“It’s always political, in the sense that I’m a brown artist making work in America, right now, in this time,” said Favela, whose heritage is Guatemalan and Mexican. He’s talking about queer visibility, too.
“There’s a lot of talk right now about creating sanctuaries and safe spaces for people, especially sanctuary cities and spaces for people that are undocumented and people who are seeking asylum and maybe for queer people, the LGBTQA community, who maybe don’t have a place to go.” (Locally, Our Center, which has made strides in that department, marked its second anniversary last month. But not every town has an Our Center.)
In art, film, literature and music, the idea of creating a sanctuary is often used figuratively or academically. Favela’s idea was to carve out a literal, physical sanctuary. Some of his tissue paper-lined walls were made to resemble scenes in different movies, ones that he considers his own figurative safe spaces.
“I’m using Dark Habits, Sister Act, and”—he pointed to a wall of tissue paper depicting snowy peaks and a grassy meadow—“of course, Sound of Music.”
As Favela has thought about the idea of “safe spaces,” he’s realized that some of them aren’t what they seem. “I’m thinking of art spaces that are institutional, that try to invite the public,” he said. Museums, for one, might voice a goal to attract people from a wider range of demographics than they end up realistically attracting.
Favela has an edge on museums in this endeavor, though. In critiquing notions of inaccessibility and thinking about where certain groups are legitimately welcomed, his best weapon is the uber-accessible, irresistible look of his sculptures and installations. In the ongoing battles over craft vs art that simmer endlessly, Favela’s take on the boundary between them is to proceed as if it weren’t there, as if he has a remote in his hand for an electric dog fence that can simply be turned off with a button.
While he said, regarding the show at Sierra Arts, “I’m making a little bit more pointed of a statement than I usually do,” he’s also perfectly OK with the Cinco-de-Mayo-décor reading. The main thing, if you visit the space, for whatever reason, is that you feel at home here.