LAYERS OF MEANING Diaz’s work probes ethnicity, economics, and class.
Outside the entrance to the RISD Museum, a sign — the sort of blinking arrow sign typical of used car dealerships — promises a "Naked artist inside." Unfortunately, this turns out to be not true. But it signals the sort of art jokes that Alejandro Diaz is up to in his exhibit "RISD Business: Sassy Signs and Sculptures" (224 Benefit Street, Providence, through June 9).
The south Texas-raised, New York-based artist specializes in conceptual art as wisecracks. In this exhibit organized by curator Judith Tannenbaum, who has announced plans to leave full-time work at the museum in February to focus on writing and other projects (aka kinda/sorta, semi-retire), Diaz's pieces range from pointed jabs about the place of Mexican Americans in the United States to wocka-wocka-wocka gags for art insiders.
Once you walk into the museum, you find Diaz has installed a neon sign behind the ticket desk that reads "Another bright idea." He offers free toasters to people who sign up for new museum memberships ("while supplies last"). And he invites you to take your photo with a life-sized cutout photo of his aunt for a $5 donation.
He's burlesquing enticements familiar from car dealerships to banks, that aim to get you in the door and part with your money. They feel like cheap, cheesy commercial gimmicks. But they start you thinking about the more smooth and classy economics of the museum. You might begin to wonder: What's the difference? It's all just about money.
SIGN LANGUAGE Diaz’s art as wisecrack.
Diaz's signature works are cardboard signs painted with one-liners: "Will work for ever." "Does this sign make me look fat?" "Looking for nice upper East Side lady with clean elegant apt. (must have cable)." "Make tacos not war." "Straight man trapped in a gay man's party." "Mexican wallpaper." "Homeless but happy."
They look like the hand-scrawled placards used by roadside beggars. But Diaz uses them for jokes, puns, and slogans that probe ethnicity, economics, and class. (If Diaz doesn't already have a Twitter account, he should.)
Neon signs read "In the future everyone will be famous for $15.00," "No shoes/No shirt/You're probably rich," "Happiness is expensive." An armless classical-styled sculpture of a woman holds bundles of his cardboard signs — mostly copies of the ones on the walls. A wicker basket dangles from a rope offering (toy) kittens for sale — "$3.00." To Cheer Yourself Up, Insert Flowers is an orange painting with fake carnations stuck into a horizontal slash in the canvas. A neon sign reading "Quality" flickers like it's on the blink.
Diaz's magnum opus is his Diaz Art Foundation, a parody of the famous Dia Art Foundation, which was founded in Texas in 1974 to support a handful of white guy artist stars — Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Walter de Maria, and so on.