When you hear the myth of Quinametzin giants for the first time, you’d do well to remember that facts more often than not are stranger than fiction. Within the pantheon of Mesoamerican legend, the giants were a race of people who lived and ruled modern-day Mexico, prior to the Aztec gods. The giants built the pyramids, fought Spanish conquistadors and left only bones behind. In accounts written by Spanish missionaries, indigenous tradition tells of the giants’ society prior to eradication by the gods due to their sins. Drunkenness, pride, lack of respect. Were these the giants’ sins? The things that made them, that shaped the contours of their selfhood? Are sins the story? If not, what is? What makes the story of the giants? What sins, what salvations make your ridges and edges, your boundaries and openings?
In Bruno Smith and Ricardo Partida’s “How One Becomes What One Was” at LVL3, the legend of the Quinametzin giants provides a jumping-off point for both artists’ excavations of selfhood. Smith and Partida are invested in exploring what it means to be a person within history and hold histories of one’s own; the porous lines that exist between agent and receptor. Each artist plays with the inner workings of mythologies to create interludes of the self for the modern world; stories with staying power, stories with wings, stories with legs.
Partida’s work, primarily figural and within the picture plane for “One Becomes,” takes its cues from Greek mythology. Partida’s figures are painted with lush strokes, voluptuous in their nudity, and they challenge staid conventions of what a heroic masculine figure can be. In Partida’s “Fagazons” (2023), the masculine is camp, queer and funny. Playing off of the legendary Amazonian ferocity, a svelte, leather-clad figure with brown skins uses a gap-jawed, cartoonish white man as a human sled. This colonizer is not ready for the ride.
Smith in turn treats the figure of the Neanderthal as a means by which to guide the viewer through alternate histories, timelines that merge the past and the present. In Smith’s practice, each Neanderthal possesses a unique personality as well as idiosyncratic likes and dislikes; it’s these imagined iterations of the human who guide viewers through world events. In “Neanderthal watching a nuclear explosion from a cave” (2023), images of mushroom clouds flash equidistant from one another on a canvas in a manner similar to television screens. In each of these miniature frames, lone figures standing in shadow dominate the foreground. These are Smith’s main characters, their viewers, their Neanderthals. We, as viewers of the work, don’t get to glean the Neanderthals’ response to the clouds. They’re frozen, forever watching these spectacles of destruction. Sound familiar?
“One Becomes” is an exhibition built upon the question of the story: who is the main character, where do they go, what do they see; what events, people, places and things shape them? This process of making and unmaking, of shedding and releasing, of finding oneself in those prideful, drunken corners others fear to tread, provides a way to ask: what makes you who you are?
Bruno Smith and Ricardo Partida’s “How One Becomes What One Was” at LVL3, 1542 North Milwaukee, third floor, on view through July 22.