LOS ANGELES — It’s exciting when art embodies a place; when hushed histories, often bloody, converge with the palpable present, helping to intuit a likely future. At the UNREPD gallery located in the Grand LA, a solo exhibition of works by the artist known as Moncho 1929 (Dan Monteavaro) gave me that distinct feeling. Titled :botánica and on view through December 17, the show encapsulates the pulse of Los Angeles and that of communities peppered throughout California, the southwest, and any towns within an hour’s drive of the Gulf of Mexico. Which is to say: American places that are deeply steeped in Latinx cultures.
A botánica is a Latinx space of healing and gathering typically selling plant-based goods that bridge Western medicines and Indigenous spiritual beliefs. Across 19 new paintings on wood panels and canvas, Moncho 1929 adds new layers to that bridge.
The majority of the works present as life-sized tarot cards, complete with numbers and categorical titles. But the subjects of the cards, including household items and an image that looks like it was plucked from a Boyle Heights street corner, are quite different from those of a traditional tarot deck. There’s a distinctly masculine feel to the show, despite the world of tarot and intuition seeming rooted in the feminine. But the shift in gaze feels accurate, highlighting a different facet of today’s open-ended questions, more like an admission of needed perspectives when wrestling with the subject matter than an assertion of gender roles.
A handful of the works embrace duality, with images that are half-human paired with half-animal or half-machine — many of them depicting these joined creatures with a distinct sense of motion. A faceless man’s torso appears to be in a position of rest, but his legs are those of a horse caught in a high-velocity gallop. Or three people, also faceless, are sitting casually while their lower half morphs into a moped with only two riders — one white hand and one black hand controlling the wheels.
It’s not that these mash-ups are in opposition; it’s more that they are unlikely collaborators. Disparate yet connected ideas that come together to form a new image that is quite literally going places. It’s apt considering the Spanish colonial practice of transporting people from West Africa to the Caribbean and Americas that :botánica is commenting on resulted in its own version of unlikely collaborations that were disparate yet connected. That era ushered in the subsequent weaving of Indigenous traditions, African rituals, and Catholic beliefs that also had one white and one black hand controlling the wheels.
Even the physical placement of the gallery lends to this thesis. It sits up the street from the LA Courthouse, across from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and next to a pop-up exhibition of Jean Michel Basquiat — a snapshot of LA where many blue-collar workers are milling about, maintaining the legacies of white-collar buildings and culture. The gallery itself, UNREPD, is run by two women of color who spotlight artists outside of a privileged, White, male background — another identity intersection that embodies the melding of cultures in the world of Los Angeles art.
“UNREPD was born out of a simple belief: that artists who are underrepresented in the art world are making museum-quality work, which deserves to be viewed in a place of honor,” founders Tricia Benitez Beanum and Sarah Mantilla Griffin told Hyperallergic.
“We value inclusivity, as we believe that a multitude of perspectives only enhance our conceptions of who we are as people,” they continued. “We value beauty in its many forms. And we value community, for what is art if not a shared experience?”
During my visit, the gallery attendant was playing Puerto Rican music I wish I had Shazamed, placing the characters adorning the works in a living, breathing context. With these tunes playing in the air, it was as if they had just been plucked from their mundane activities of sitting with friends or walking their dogs to give me the major arcana of my life.
One aspect that felt lacking was a 3D installation or altar — a central element for viewers to gather around, an anchor to summon their own ancestral spirits. Galleries themselves can feel so intensely colonial, with the framing of high art as an unmarred, pristine white space where speaking is not encouraged, only reserved observation. :Botánica does some heavy lifting in questioning what we mean when we say “history” or “beliefs” or even that something is “ours” — showing how all stories are wrapped up in one another.