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It’s fitting that David Lamelas’s first American retrospective is being held at a public university situated in the port of Los Angeles. Lamelas has come and gone from city to city across the globe like a fiercely inspired misfit ocean liner, eager to absorb and spread knowledge and experience. He arguably first came to prominence with his contribution to the 1968 Venice Biennale, Office of Information about the Vietnam War at Three Levels: The Visual Image, Text and Audio. For this work, he compiled Italian news reports about the Vietnam War and presented them in Italian, French, and Spanish in a simulated office setting. It is strikingly not restaged here; instead, it is simply remembered through ephemera and a didactic placard. This is a bold, commendable move, but also a bit like a famous band retiring their greatest hit.
Ironically, Rock Star (Character Appropriation) (1974), one of Lamelas’s more blustering bodies of work in the exhibition, features him pretending to play the guitar in his temporarily stage-lit studio. A more sinuous project, just across the room, is The Violent Tapes of 1975, in which he attempted to construct stills of an imagined film after his original idea for the movie was rejected by Hollywood studios for being “too conceptual.”
By willfully revealing the egotistical desires of the artist as well as the fictions of his conceptualism throughout his expansive career, Lamelas leaves himself vulnerable and, thus, allows his work to become more accessible. A prime example on view is his and Hildegarde Duane’s improvisational and satirical 1980 video, Scheherazade, which references the Arabic folk tales of One Thousand and One Nights. In the darkly humorous spectacle, Lamelas plays a materialistic and misogynistic sheikh and Duane plays an educated yet racist broadcast journalist.
Much like the way Lamelas cannot be confined by borders, he cannot be defined by medium or message, as evidenced by the range of works that occupy the entire institution. In addition to the aforementioned works in the exhibition, a selection of cognitive drawings, films, installations, sculptures, and text-based works contribute to Lamelas’ complex personal and political ecosystem. In many ways, not much has changed in half a decade—we’re still at war, pop music is still all about swagger, Hollywood is still overwhelmingly conservative, stereotypes still sadly have a stranglehold on the world, and Lamelas is still very much relevant.
Originally published in Carla issue 10