At the outset of the video “Don’t Be Cruel,” artist Dale Hoyt reads a letter into the camera. Written in 1979, it describes the senseless torture and eventual murder of a baby deer, condemning both the couple who attack the animal and a witness who does nothing to help it. Hoyt becomes the weeping author (or witness?), a bystander implicated by the inability or unwillingness to intercede. I wept with the artist as he read the letter, bound in censure until the shocking conclusion implodes our fragile complicity: Hoyt, looking into the camera, asks with dry eyes, “Did you catch that? Do you want me to do it again? I can do it again.”
Brutality and collusion are quiet companions throughout the CAC’s Its All a Blur. Originating at San Francisco’s SOMArts, Blur wades into the murky waters of an American Dream that has been warped and retooled so many times that rumors of her existence seem bound more by faith than attainability. Done well, this should be an uncomfortable experience. By assembling three of SF’s most influential artists, curator Justin Hoover takes no prisoners. Hoyt, Tony Labat and Guillermo Gómez-Peña dismantle cultural identity, economic disparity and power for breakfast. It’s breathtaking.
The systematic brutality of Blur is softened by measured doses of eroticism, humor and sweetness. Hoyt’s “Kitten Kollaboration” with illustrator Steve Thurston, for example, is a disarming series of twisted graphite portraits featuring adorable kittens in somewhat disturbing situations (missing parts, surgically attached puppy head, etc.). Hoyt pairs violent gestures with extreme empathy, as with “Transgenic Hairshirt,” where the artist’s shaven hair becomes a coat for his hairless cat.
Is there such a thing as ruthlessly sexy compassion? Gómez-Peña’s performances and videos hold us accountable for bigotry and hate while overflowing with love and humor. Epic documentary The Great Mojado Invasion splices and dices vintage film, television and xenophobia into 40 minutes of visual adrenaline that makes good on its promise of “threatening your national identity.”
Labat’s precision in isolating potent cultural symbols is genius. From shooting-range target to barbecue grill, these signs are lampooned with a clarity and democracy that is profoundly relatable. In “Peace Roll,” a young woman rolls a massive peace sign through San Francisco. Stripped of meaning by complacency and ignorance, the icon of a movement is reduced to an icon being moved.
It’s almost too easy to dwell on the cursory line between self and other at the heart of Blur, cultural shorthand these days thanks in no small part to these three artists. Expertly drawing out the complexity of our dystopia in image, language, and sign, Blur’s truth may be brutal, but it is not without generosity. The brutality only begins when we see without shedding a tear.