José Villalobos’s exhibition Fuertes y Firmas at Big Medium in Austin defiantly extracts beauty from brutality.
José Villalobos: Fuertes y Firmes
October 19–December 2, 2023
Big Medium, Austin
José Villalobos’s work straddles two worlds at once. Born and raised on the U.S.-Mexico border between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, the artist explores the role of masculinity and queer identity in a culture steeped in machismo and conservative beliefs. Like the border itself, his practice embodies a coexistence of opposing and intersecting forces.
Using traditional costumery and objects common to norteño culture, Villalobos’s performance pieces and mixed-media installations channel his heritage while blurring the lines of male beauty, physical strength, and tenderness. Bright tassels and rhinestone saddles are as integral as rough leather and rope.
But in Fuertes y Firmas, on view at Big Medium in Austin, Villalobos swaps out those colorful embellishments for a stripped-down sepia palette. Farm tools, dirt mounds, and strands of barbed wire pay homage to the 4.6 million braceros, Mexican manual laborers granted temporary U.S. work permits in the wake of World War II. The Bracero Program was in place for over twenty years, but corruption and discriminatory practices led to its demise by the mid-1960s.
Documented instances of worker mistreatment are repeatedly referenced in the show, most notably in the gallery’s centerpiece, which features a pesticide gun lightly misting a cowboy hat over a bed of soil. The two objects are suspended in space like an ethereal reenactment of the DDT and other harsh chemicals routinely used to disinfect braceros before they entered the U.S. Bodiless but for a pair of plaster feet (cast from a queer individual and stained with leather dye) placed in the soil below, the bracero’s absence becomes his only existence.
Como Vibora les Escupía su Veneno de Pies a Cabeza (How a Viper Spits Its Venom at Them From Head to Toe) (2023) seemingly corresponds to a separate video playing on a nearby wall. In it, Villalobos wears a cowboy hat covered in white mesh that continuously, diaphanously blows in the breeze. Mesmerizing in and of itself, the video serves to rewrite the story of the pesticides, omitting the viper—and turning its venom into a delicate veil.
Hands and feet thematically appear throughout the show, a simple human reminder of the toll of physical labor. In Our Destiny Exists Within the Calluses of our Hands (2023), seven pairs of hands—one for each day of the week—line the wall in open-palmed gestures. Braceros were routinely inspected for calluses as proof of their hard work, yet these hands, made by a U.S. military mannequin manufacturer, are as smooth as they are strong.
Fuertes y Firmes—strong and firm in English—is a continuation of an earlier body of work by Villalobos, de los otros, which focused on a gay bracero worker in the 1940s named Porfirio. By expanding into the wider history of the bracero community, Villalobos poses a larger philosophical question around virility, vulnerability, and manhood. By confronting the emasculating treatment many workers endured, Villalobos has effectively re-masculated them through depictions of strength and resilience.
The clearest example of this is found in two side-by-side works. Mi Ser (2023) features a suite of five short-handled hoes (made of resin and silk flowers, perhaps the softest visual detail in the show), elegantly spaced across the gallery wall. Above the display, the words “Esto Es Mi Ser” are spelled out in a mixture of soil and cotton from the border region.
Next to this wall installation, an erotic black-and-white photograph features three large vertebrae chained to a mound of flesh. Forced to work with inadequate tools, their spines began to slump (2023) is in stunning contrast to the field hoes. The fine-art photograph beautifully subverts the U.S. government’s degrading tactics by transforming those countless slumped spines into a single, seductive curve.
The phrase “Esto Es Mi Ser” (This Is My Being) speaks not only to the braceros (including Villalobos’s own grandfather) but to Villalobos himself. If Fuertes y Firmes is an eye-opening look at the history of those who crossed the border, even for a short while, it is equally about the artist breaking barriers to better understand himself.
Correction 11/28/2023: The text has been amended with clarifications and corrections about the materials used in the works Our Destiny Exists Within the Calluses of our Hands and Como Vibora les Escupía su Veneno de Pies a Cabeza, at the request of the artist.