San Francisco-based curator A.R. Vazquez-Concepcion untangles threads of history, knowledge production, and colonialism in Bestiario/Menagerie, a vibrant, 10-person group exhibition on view at Adobe Books Back Gallery through January 28.

Bestiario or “bestiary”, roughly translated, describes a compendium of animals – imaginary and real – that was bound in book or illuminated manuscript form. Dating to second century Greece, bestiaries reflected a desire to understand the natural and spiritual worlds through collecting, categorization, and comparison.

Centuries on, cabinets of curiosities were amassed as Enlightenment thinking and imperialist expansion brought western Europeans into contact with worldwide civilizations. Through dedicated study of physical artifacts, it was believed, a civilization’s value could be assessed. The sinister footnote to that ambitious effort is, of course, that colonized societies were treated as foreign, as the other, and in need of “civilizing” through paternalistic intervention.

The artifacts that were assembled in personal and later, public curio collections, were regarded as representations of the unfamiliar, and knowledge derived from observation was passed generationally as authoritative. In Bestiario/Menagerie, the objects and the artistic practices that produce them reject containment and the purported “authority” of knowledge through provocative juxtaposition.

Vazquez-Concepcion makes the most of Adobe Books’ intimate gallery, spacing each object to hold its own and, when considered relationally, deliver a deeper and decidedly more troubling understanding when viewed together.

Marcela Pardo Arizas “Dissident” (2016), in which a humorously unruly pencil line interrupts the banal familiarity of a Post-It note, is both funnier and more frightening next to Fernando Pintado’s “Non Nobis Domine Non Nobis” (Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us) (2016). Its title excerpted from a short Latin hymn that expresses humility and thanks for spiritual blessings, this four-panel charcoal and paint piece portrays crusading Knights Templar who waged multiple wars to reclaim Jerusalem from Muslim invaders. In this pairing, notions of rebellion expand and align an innocuous graphite mark and state-sanctioned terrorists bent on delivering apocalyptic violence in the name of Christianity.
Stretching diagonally across the gallery, Santiago Insignares’ colorful biomorphic sculptures “Restriction”, “Implication”, and “Posthumous” (2016) address traumatic experiences and how memory enforces such events as mile markers in our lives. Without knowing that the meat of Insignares’ inspiration includes systematic massacre, displays of tortured bodies, and domestic violence, these sculptures might earn little more than a passing glance. Insignares interrogates authority’s unchecked abuses, and how knowledge is obscured to mask the gravest offenses.
Maria Guzman-Capron’s “El Tigre y Yo” (The Tiger and I) (2017), and Mya Pagan’s “Monstrix” (2017) recall the first bestiaries and later cabinets of curiosities as embodied versions of fantastical hybrid beasts, but with a subversive twist. Working with discounted fabrics, Guzman-Capron fashions a half-tiger, half-human sculpture that lounges atop a low plinth as though enjoying celebrity status. Mya Pagan offers a playful Pan-like creature revealed by a drawn curtain – again half human and half animal – covered in luxurious fur and crowned with flowers and horns. Engaging objects both, especially because their inclusion within this exhibitionary context points to the wholescale degradation colonized people – women in particular – faced as they were enslaved, displayed like circus attractions for lurid consumer satisfaction, and civilized (read: stripped of their individuality and autonomy) for their own good.
The motley assemblage that is Bestiario/Menagerie demonstrates both the best and worst of human inclinations: curiosity is an evolutionary gift. Building knowledge through collecting, comparing, and analyzing has helped the human species amass a compendium more comprehensive than any bestiary or curio cabinet could contain. When knowledge, or presumed knowledge, is used to subjugate others, we lose our humanity. Through these objects and the juxtapositions they activate, the knots of history, knowledge production, and the ever-present danger of using it to exploit others begin to unravel.

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