(Essay from the Catalogue “WAR” published by the artist
"Can’t we all just get along?" implored Rodney King in the midst of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Nine years later, artist Alex Donis shows us that we can indeed not only get along, but that we can have a fabulously gay time doing so. Rodney King’s quote has relevance to Alex Donis’ new body of work, entitled "WAR," for other reasons. The quote is indelibly associated with Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Police Department. Donis’ new work is all about Los Angeles and the LAPD. It speaks of gang dynamics and the tolerance needed to successfully manage them. Race, tolerance, acceptance and forgiveness are also at the heart of the new work. Instead of imploring us to get along, Alex creates a world through the power of art where - like the Nike ads suggest - we just do it.
Donis’ work deals with Los Angeles, its homebred gangs and concomitant law enforcement. In "Young Crip Young Blood," we have two teenage boys, one in the essential red of the Bloods and the other in the characteristic blue of the Crips, dancing together. In another painting, an African-American Watts gang member does the Hustle with a blonde, whiter-than-white Anglo police officer, the type that was the hallmark of William Parker’s police department. Donis’ subject matter speaks poignantly of Los Angeles’ new image at the turn of the century. Once famous for roses in December and Hollywood glamour, the City of Angels is now (in)famous for its gangs and the last major American insurrection of the 20th century.
The focus in Los Angeles is interesting in terms of Donis’ evolution as an artist. He first gained notoriety for his "My Cathedral" installation, a work that is conceptually the direct antecedent to "WAR," at the Galería de la Raza in San Francisco. "My Cathedral" consists of translucent paintings on plexiglass of same-sex kissing couples like Mother Teresa and Madonna, Pope John Paul II and Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ and Lord Rama. The choices of unsettling couples are actual historical characters and mythic, religious icons that represent various cultures and geographical locations. The cosmopolitan universality of the installation speaks of the family of man, a theme Donis learned from his extensive travels.
Each body of Donis’ work is created specifically for the neighborhood hosting the exhibition. Whereas "My Cathedral" employed religious iconography to allude to the various churches in the environs of Galería de la Raza, "WAR" uses the LAPD and gangs to reference the often one-sided and stereotypical view of Watts, often characterized solely by its long history of rebellion against and resistance to the police department. But Watts has a longer history of community, neighborhood, and perseverance, something that Alex learned when he taught at the Watts Towers Art Center from 1995 to 1999. Indeed, it is the complexities of this community, seen through his sensibilities as an artist, that inspired this work.
"WAR" is also about acceptance, both of homosexuality and race differences. It would be as disingenuous to ignore the queer content of Donis’ work as it would be to ignore the LAPD’s abysmal history with homosexuality. Speaking on homosexuals in the LAPD, Daryl Gates asked "Who…would want to work with one?" That attitude was inherited from previous Chiefs of Police. As Ed Davis reckoned, "Homosexuals could not become LAPD officers because no one would be able to use the radio microphones in the patrol cars after they had." Complete homophobia has long been part of the LAPD culture. In "WAR," Donis inverts this long tradition by not only depicting police officers engaging in compromising homosexual activities, but also thoroughly enjoying themselves in the process.
Donis’ work also subverts nothing less than the founding philosophy of the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD’s policing agenda has always been about dominion, control and the ultimate power of its Chiefs, from James Edgar Davis’ stop-and-search and dragnet techniques in the 1930’s; to William Parker’s "proactive policing" in the 1950’s; to Edward Davis, nicknamed "Crazy Ed" (need we say more?) in the 1970’s; to Daryl Gates’ police culture that gave us the Rodney King beating in the 1990’s. As the Christopher Commission report stated in July of 1991, "The LAPD has an organizational culture that emphasizes crime control over crime prevention and that isolates the police from the communities they serve." In other words, a police officer can and should "handcuff," "arrest," and "detain" gang members but under no circumstances should they Dirty Dance, Lambada, or do the Bump with them. Truly, in Donis’ work the officers have a good relationship with the community they are supposed to protect and to serve. One of the reasons these images are so shocking is because they countervail the dictatorial nature of policing in Los Angeles.
Ironically, acceptance is an overt element in a work entitled "WAR." But in dealing with acceptance, we may overlook an implied and much more important sentiment: forgiveness. With all its erotic content, homosexuality, and jarring juxtapositions, Donis’ work is about reconciliation. There has to be an immense amount of forgiveness for an Evergreen gang member to dance with a Sheriff. Much healing and pardoning has to occur for a paraplegic to dance with a member of an institution responsible for his paraplegia.
Donis’ "WAR" also has a sound component. After all, if you are going to dance, you need music. The soundscape, created by video and sound artist Morgan Barnard, is an important element of the installation. It consists of a mix of 70’s disco, police sirens, campy bantering between gang members and their arresting officers, and a voice-over of Keith Antar Mason’s poem, which is also transcribed onto the actual walls of the galleries.
Through the power of art, Alex Donis has given us images of gang members and the Los Angeles Police Department that are both sanitized and controversial. Sanitized, because the characters are benign dancers. Controversial, because of their dance partners. However, in the visceral shock we receive at seeing something so contradictory as a male officer and male gang member dancing together, we forget that for that to happen, an incredible amount of reconciliation, acceptance, and forgiveness has had to take place. And, honestly, can’t we all think of much worse things that an LAPD officer can be caught doing (and they have) than dancing with a Mariana Maravilla gang member?