A Young Artist Who Mostly Draws Attention

"My point is to bring substance back," Yazmany Arboleda says of his controversial exhibit.
"My point is to bring substance back," Yazmany Arboleda says of his controversial exhibit. (Courtesy Of The Artist)
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008

NEW YORK, June 5 -- Do not call it a hoax.

Yazmany Arboleda prefers to think of his art installation, and the swarm of police, Secret Service officers and journalists that it drew, as a piece of performance art. Or a project.

"Anyone who calls it a hoax is misguided," says the diminutive, hyper 28-year-old. "They don't understand -- there are many layers to this."

The "this" he is referring to is an exhibition of his work titled "The Assassination of Hillary Clinton" and "The Assassination of Barack Obama." It's a collection that would surely have gone unnoticed but for that oh-no-he-didn't name. One image is a massive redo of the cover of Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope," but retitled "The Audacity of Black People." Another is a photographic image of Clinton, appearing ravaged with wrinkles, accompanied by the words "The Face of Experience." And those are about the only ones we can describe in a family newspaper.

Still, not exactly incendiary -- until you add the title of the exhibition, which Arboleda stenciled on an empty storefront's window near Times Square, a space that he spent $5,000 to rent for two days, Wednesday and Thursday. He hadn't yet had the chance to hang the art when police saw the words on Wednesday morning and decided they wanted a word or two with Arboleda. He was quickly summoned by the owner of 264 W. 40th St.

"I didn't even have a chance to shower," Arboleda says, standing yesterday in the makeshift gallery. "I just got up and took off."

When Arboleda arrived, he found not just a dozen or so officers but members of the Secret Service. They drove him to a nearby precinct to ask him questions. By that time reporters and camera crews were flocking around the gallery space. Police chief Raymond Kelly said at a news conference: "Obviously, it sounds totally inappropriate. We need more information as to what the purpose of it was."

To cause a ruckus, it turns out. Arboleda was released by the police after an hour of questions led to the conclusion that he was way more Andy Warhol than Travis Bickle. He hung the art of the "Assassination" show on Wednesday night. Yesterday, though operating on just a few hours' sleep, he bounced on his feet as he explained the Point of It All.

"My mission as an artist is to raise dialogue and conversation about substantive things," he says, staring through arty glasses that did not have any lenses. "There's so much media time spent on superficial things -- like celebrities. My point is to bring substance back."

It's not remotely clear that "Assassination" spurred anything that could be called substantial, but it sure spurred something.

Born in Boston and raised for much of his early life in Colombia, Arboleda is a graphic designer by day, though he spends every spare moment painting and dreaming up ways to get those paintings noticed. Which, until Wednesday, was proving difficult. Last year, he had a show of sorts at a clothing store in Tribeca, but the work -- portraits made up of 50,000 colored rubber balls -- didn't provoke much response.

Arboleda resolved to make art that nobody could be indifferent to, which led him to ponder what subject still has the power to shock. In February, it came to him: assassination.

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