Art review: ‘Small Guide to Homeownership’ at the Art Museum of the Americas

You wouldn’t know it from the title, but the exhibition “Small Guide to Homeownership” offers a close look at the human body.

On view at the Art Museum of the Americas, the exhibition of photographs by Alejandro Cartagena focuses on 30 works from the Dominican-born, Mexico-based artist’s series “The Carpoolers,” which features overhead shots of Mexican day laborers on the back of pickup and small flatbed trucks. Shot from an overpass over southbound Highway 85 on the way to the upscale Mexican city of San Pedro Garza Garcia — to which the construction workers would commute from their suburban homes — the images have a strangely clinical quality, as if taken in the stillness of a doctor’s office, not by an artist lying on a pedestrian bridge during rush hour.


(Alejandro Cartagena)

(Alejandro Cartagena)

Sometimes the men are huddled, 10 to a truck. More often, two to four workers are stretched out, side by side, like sardines. That’s both a function of the early hour — many of them are sleeping — and the fact that it’s illegal to ride in the bed of a truck, so they stay out of sight. In a couple of Cartagena’s tableaux, one man is awake and looking up, locking eyes with the photographer and, by extension, with us. The connection only adds to the disconcertingly voyeuristic sensation the photos engender.

“The Carpoolers” is related to a larger body of Cartagena’s work, “Suburbia Mexicana,” represented in the show by several images from his “Fragmented Cities” series, which depicts rows of nearly identical tract houses in Monterrey-area suburbs such as Apodaca. Those homes look like jail cells, yet the pictures are notably devoid of people.

Paradoxically, the truck pictures exude a sense of freedom that belies the seemingly claustrophobic confinement. The truck beds sometimes look like little homes, outfitted with bedding, food, reading material and other comforts of domestic life, along with construction equipment and supplies.

The men in the photos resemble specimens on a microscope slide, on the way from the prison of a suburb to what may be the slavery of a blue-collar job. But lost in sleep, they also embody — if only for a moment, as they fly past Cartagena’s lens — the liberating power of dreams.

Cartagena’s themes of freedom and constraint are echoed in a second photography show at the museum. Featuring the work of Colombian-born, Miami-based photographer Natalia Arias, “Femininity Beyond Archetypes” also focuses on the body, but only as a way of exploring female stereotypes. In Arias’s work, motherhood, sexuality, nurturing and power are probed in works that use the female form — frequently unclothed — as a focus for the artist’s meditation on how women have been historically objectified.


(Natalia Arias: “Beauty”)

But “Femininity” feels like a protest rally. Its messages are overt, even obvious. All that’s missing are the slogans. Cartagena’s art is more sly and subversive. Like his hiding “Carpoolers,” the meaning of his art is elusive, yet haunting.

On Aug. 22 from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., the museum will present Art After Dark, a late-night event featuring outdoor video projections, live music, a raffle, performance art and food trucks. Both exhibitions will also be on view. Tickets to the event, which include drinks, are $50.

Small Guide to Homeownership: Photography by Alejandro Cartagenaof Mexico
Femininity Beyond Archetypes: Photography by Natalia Arias of Colombia

“Homeownership” is on view through Nov. 2 and “Femininity” through Oct. 5 at the Art Museum of the Americas, 201 18th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202-370-0147. www.museum.oas.org. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free.

Public program: On Aug. 22 from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., the museum will present Art After Dark, a late-night event featuring outdoor video projections, live music, a raffle, performance art and food trucks. Both exhibitions also will be on view. Tickets to the event, which include drinks, are $50.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.

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