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A Young Artist Who Mostly Draws Attention

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.

"I called some friends and ran it by them and they said, 'Uh, it might be in bad taste, but let us think about it.' " Those friends, and many others, eventually helped with a project that Arboleda divided into six different phases.

"We make jokes about how he turns us into his work force," says freelance Web designer and former college roommate Mark Bush. "I don't know how he did it, but he'd have us in his office working on this till 5 in the morning. He's got that kind of enthusiasm."

For the first phase, Arboleda needed a gallery in Chelsea to display "Assassination," with the intention of having it promptly shut down by authorities. The problem: No gallery in Chelsea would display his art, though not because they found it offensive. "They said, 'We discover our artists, they don't come to us,' " Arboleda says.

Not one for waiting, Arboleda and his friends went online and invented two galleries, purportedly in Chelsea, purportedly exhibiting his "Assassination" show. Viewing at these fictitious venues was said to be by appointment only. Anyone who phoned or e-mailed received a callback from Arboleda, who dolefully explained that the show had been closed down.

Inevitably, this led to publicity. Michael Musto mentioned the show in the Village Voice, implying that he liked the outrageousness of the art, and Martin Peretz blogged about it for the New Republic, implying that he didn't. Arboleda was profiled in the Miami Herald with the headline "Artist Makes a Big Leap."

But that pales compared with the ink and pixels generated by the two-day rental at 264 W. 40th. Arboleda said he was a little surprised by the vehemence of the reaction, in part because the idea of the show had been run through the media machine already, even if it had never actually been seen by the public. He's received some death threats, of course.

But yesterday, the guy looked exhilarated, like he'd just pulled off some impossible triple flip in the pike position. This is a town crammed with artists, and most of them wait years to get a single mention in the press. A tiny fraction ever mount a show that earns widespread attention. As Arboleda readied for an on-camera interview with Channel 9 late yesterday afternoon, his friends were lugging in beer for the after party.

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