Caleb Duarte speaks so softly that sometimes you have to tilt your head forward to hear him. When he walks into a recent Bee photo shoot with a group of lively fellow artists, he strikes an unassuming figure, letting others do most of the talking. There's a reserve to him, a quietness, that might be mistaken for shyness.
But make no mistake. Duarte, whose work is part of the impressive "Breakthrough" show at the Fresno Art Museum, is an artist whose work -- and views on art -- are anything but gentle.
Most of his fellow graduates from the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where Duarte studied as a painter after a stint at Fresno City College, went on to try to climb the expected career ladder in the highly commercialized art world: completing residencies, getting into important shows, persuading important commercial galleries to take on their work.
"That path was static to me," he says.
Instead, Duarte moved to the city of San Cristobal De Las Casas in the Mexican state of Chiapas, the epicenter of the Zapatista liberation movement. There, in an abandoned United Nations office, he co-founded an arts collective that caters heavily to the indigenous people of the area. Guest artists interested in aboriginal rights travel there for residencies. Environmental groups participate. Musicians play everything from local music to heavy metal. Duarte often travels to local villages to teach visual arts and poetry.
Needless to say, he didn't go for the big bucks.
To him, art isn't something that is exclusively the domain of "artists." Yes, there is a place for people who make art in a solitary way for a living. (And some are handsomely rewarded for it.) But highly complex societies can pay a price for deferring exclusively to those labeled as professional artists. Too often what is lost, Duarte says, is the idea of art as a collective experience.
"We all live creative lives in some way," he says, speaking at the Fig Garden Starbucks a few weeks after the "Breakthrough" opening. "The question is how to ignite that. In our culture, I feel there's a suffocation of the creative way of life for so many of us."
I wrote a big piece about the "Breakthrough" show, and we were able to highlight each of the six featured artists in these pages. But I knew at the time that I wanted to come back and write more about Duarte. Of all the works in the exhibition, his is probably the least accessible. It's one of those pieces that cries out for background.
For the show, Duarte recreated a performance art piece he originally made in a small village about 40 minutes outside San Cristobal. The villagers buried Duarte and his fellow artist, Mia Rollow, up to the head in a shallow, hand-dug hole in the dirt. For the museum version, Duarte created a 12-by-6- foot slab of "dirt" (made of concrete and soil) that seems to float out from the wall. There's a hole for a person to stand in the middle.
At the opening of the exhibition, Duarte hired a local man to stand immobile in the slab. A video shot that night now runs with the exhibition along with a video of the original performance piece.
To understand Duarte's motivations for the piece, it's important to back up and consider how this particular work came to be "institutionalized" in a museum setting.
Politics and art have long seemed a natural intersection to him. He's a product of capitalism: As a child, his family moved from Mexico to Corcoran to work in the cottonfields. (His parents have since moved back to Mexico to care for Duarte's grandfather, but many of his family members still live in the area.) He grew up just a few houses away from the Fresno Art Museum, in fact.
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