May 1, 2012

Faster than a Speeding Bullet

Below is an edited version of an article written about Virgil Ortiz's recent pottery show held at King Galleries in Scottsdale in March. In his latest projects, Ortiz takes the Pueblo Revolt and throws it into the future: imagining a futuristic battle and a resistance that never ended. The review looks at his installation, pottery and video associated with the Velocity show.

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: Virgil Ortiz's Velocity Series
By E. J. Guarino

Ceramic art and flight are, generally, not thought of together but Virgil Ortiz has managed to combine the two. Creating pottery, especially figures, is a slow and time consuming process, not one associated with speed. In the past Ortiz has dazzled and amazed us in exhibitions of his work provocatively titled “Tourniquet, “Vertigo,” “Distortion,” “Contortionista,” and “Saints and Sinners.” In “Velocity,” his latest show for the King Galleries of Scottsdale, he does not disappoint, fearlessly challenging his creativity and the limits of the ceramic medium.

The concept of “Velocity” is to project the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 into the future to 2180. Perhaps the most important event in Pueblo history, the 1680 revolt still resonates today among Native people and has inspired many Pueblo artists. In Virgil Ortiz’ futuristic vision of this seminal event, a character named the Translator is charged with the mission of communicating stories of the Pueblo Revolt, past and future, to the world. This mysterious figure is, in essence, Ortiz’ alter ego. It is the year 2180 and Native lands continue to be invaded by outsiders and the Po’Pay of the future summons the Blind Archers, a group of female warriors led by Tahu, and the Gliders, the 22nd century equivalent of the 1680 runners, led by Mopez to Tent Rocks, sacred formations near Cochiti Pueblo. As in the 17th century, a revolt is set in motion to free Pueblo people from their oppressors.

Po’Pay is such a legendary figure that often history and myth collide, making it difficult to separate the two. Virgil Ortiz has allowed the stories surrounding this heroic figure to inspire and infuse the work in his current exhibition for King Galleries: an installation, works in clay and a video.

Virgil Ortiz painted a prayer on two walls of the King Galleries. It is written in a “secret language” (a combination of Cochiti and English) that the artist and four or five of his friends made up when they were in grade school together. The work, done in a stylized script freehand and intended to be ephemeral, will be painted over when the exhibit ends. The prayer is a translation of one from the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and is intended to have significance for all time periods.

Ortiz's script
Ortiz created eight figures, plus a jar and a plate that illustrate the theme of the exhibition: the 1680 Revolt seen as if it is taking place in the future. Each of the ceramic pieces is decorated with the artist’s iconic signature designs – swirls, sunbursts, triangles, and straight lines suggestive of tattoo art.

Translator Sprint by Virgil Ortiz, Cochiti Pueblo, 19” x 10” x 10,” (2012). 
Ortiz brings the Translator to life again in Translator Sprint, another stunning ceramic figure that pushes the medium to its limits. Twisting much like many of the figures carved by Michelangelo in stone, this piece is a striking achievement in the art of ceramics. The piece is full of movement and drama as only Virgil Ortiz can elicit from clay. That Virgil Ortiz manages to get the clay to do what he asks of it is nothing short of miraculous. 

Translator Plate by Virgil Ortiz, Cochiti Pueblo, 11” in diameter (2012) 
The image of the character charged with communicating Virgil Ortiz’ unique narrative, the Translator, dominates a plate with a head and neck covered in tattoo-like designs. The character has an intentionally androgynous quality, a treatment that the artist often employs in his representational pieces. 

Tahu, Leader of the Blind Archers by Virgil Ortiz, Cochiti Pueblo, 15”w x 19”h (2012). 
Largely covered in a black-and-white pattern, the figure of Tahu wields a blaster gun of the future rather than the bow and arrows of the past. She strikes a commanding pose, appearing to be ready to attack. The artist considers this the exhibit’s signature piece. 

Blind Archer 2180 #1 by Virgil Ortiz, Cochiti Pueblo, 7½”w x 14½”h (2012). 
Blind Archer 2180 #2 by Virgil Ortiz, Cochiti Pueblo, 8½”w x 13½”h (2012). 
Two of the most striking figures in the Velocity Series represent members of the Blind Archers. As conceived by Ortiz, these female warriors seem to struggle to emerge from the clay (again, reminiscent of some of Michelangelo's sculptures). According to the artist, this is indicative of how they entered the world of 2180, possibly through a star gate or wormhole. Once again, Ortiz’ mastery of the ceramic medium is astounding. Both figures are covered with the artist’s trademark designs that also include X’s. As explained by Ortiz, these markings represent turkey tracks. Since these birds are hard to follow because the imprint they leave behind resembles an X, the mark symbolizes the idea that “no one will know my next move.”

Tent Rock Glider Set by Virgil Ortiz, Cochiti Pueblo, 15½”w x 16¼”h; individual Gliders 15” long, (2012).
One of the most intriguing pieces in the Velocity Series portrays Gliders, the 22nd century equivalent of the 1680 runners as they fly at top speed from Tent Rock. In the work, the natural formation appears to have been personified since its shape is suggestive of a human figure. 

Velocity Jar by Virgil Ortiz, Cochiti Pueblo, 17”w x 10”h (2012). 
A Glider also makes an appearance in one of the most spectacular pots ever created by Virgil Ortiz. Decorated with tattoo and sunburst designs, the most startling aspect of the Velocity Jar is that one of the Gliders appears to burst through it into the 22nd century, much like a superhero.
Castilian 2180 by Virgil Ortiz, Cochiti Pueblo, 7½”w x 18¼”h (2012). 
A figure titled Castilian 2180 represents the Spanish invaders in the retelling of the Pueblo Revolt narrative in the future. Clearly, this is the villain of the story. Bearing a cross on the helmet that completely covers his face and crosses on his thick boots, the Castilian brandishes a spiked shield and a blaster gun. Of all the pieces in the series, this is the only one whose face is concealed, giving the figure an ominous, non-human quality. No one today working in the medium of ceramics is as daring or is able to achieve the same exciting results as Virgil Ortiz.

The Translator Unleashed was created by Ortiz (who also wrote the music) in conjunction with his Velocity Series and is reminiscent of other futuristic films such as Alphaville by Jean-Luc Godard, Blade Runner by Ridley Scott and THX11 by George Lucas. With this video, Ortiz not only explores a new medium but also brings to life the ceramic figures he created as part of “Velocity” and reinforces uniquely Native American ideals: the right to control ones destiny, personal and cultural sovereignty and freedom – that became part of the American fabric. Click here to check out the video: The Translator Unleashed!

“Velocity” presents the Pueblo Revolt (sometimes referred to as the First American Revolution) from a Native perspective. This is not the first time Virgil Ortiz has done this. However, in his newest exhibit Ortiz not only, once again, leaves his unique personal mark on the Cochiti tradition ceramic figures known as monos, he continues to expand his artistic range by exploring other media. What is so exciting about the exhibit is the fact that the concept is too complex for just one medium so Ortiz uses three to convey his multifaceted themes. Never before has an artist projected an historical event into the future, forcing audiences to see its relevancy in a new light. Virgil Ortiz’ openness to all forms of artistic expression, his inventiveness and his willingness to embrace experimentation make him one of the country’s most exciting contemporary artists.

Installation photographs by Jeffrey VanDyke. Click here to read the full article.