Insider/Outsider

My friend can't figure out where he belongs -- there or here. He grew up on the East Coast, but now lives on the west one. Sometimes he asks me, "Which is home?" Sometimes he sounds desperate, scared that if he doesn't belong in one place he must not belong anywhere. But I've thought about it, and I think he's wrong. I think we carry the places we've been to the places we go, and that we are never merely in one place at a time; we are in many. Geography never contains us.

I've given him advice on his dilemma, but it doesn't work. Still, in one last attempt, I told him to visit the current exhibit at Root Division. Insider/Outsider consists of work by sixteen artists who are first- or second-generation immigrants to the United States. Their paintings, illustrations, videos, and sculptures depict their experience of displacement as well as their search for an ever-elusive "home." Proceeding from a place of fractured citizenship, the artists give definition to the ambiguous territory that exists between there and here. The work might give my friend hope; it suggests that "in-between" can be a place in itself.

Juan Carlos Quintana's paintings use American and Cuban iconography to produce a sense of "ambivalent nostalgia." Rendering pop-culture images in faded carnival hues -- cowboys and clown shoes, Pinnochio, the Tin Woodsman, and Mickey Mouse -- Quintana emphasizes the supposedly wholesome icons' menacing qualities. Mickey's head is on the woodsman's body; noses and eyes are erased. The line between monster and cartoon character blurs. Adventures of an Island Boy depicts a classic cartoon desert island, hammock strung between two palm trees. An oversized figure dwarfs the scene, out of proportion with the pile of sand on which he stands. A Cuban-American, Quintana uses imagery to point to the absurdity of this caricature, revealing the racist and imperialist currents running through American depictions of island locales.

Dianna Guerrero's mixed-media installation, What Niven's Left Behind, exposes the compromised conditions in which many immigrants to the United States live and work. The title refers to Niven Nursery, a garden center in Marin County where the artist's father was employed. A migrant worker, he was exposed to pesticides on the job and died of stomach cancer. Rows and rows of plant markers, three- by one-inch tags that often detail a plant's optimal conditions, are pressed into a wall of plastic. But the white tags look like hospital bracelets. Intentional or not, the visual allusion references the way workers' health is routinely sacrificed for plants' well-being.

Born and raised in suburban California, I couldn't help but identify with David Yun's A Taste of Home. The seven-minute video chronicles the artist's return to his childhood home of Livonia, Michigan, made after his mother becomes terminally ill. Yun's voice narrates his return to this small, overwhelmingly white, suburban town. When his mother says, "Welcome home," he replies, "This hasn't been home in years." In college on the East Coast, he told people he was from Detroit, even though Livonia is nothing like Detroit. Livonia is just so unpleasant to say, he explains.

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His monologue plays over images of a Midwestern nowhere -- American flags blowing beside busy streets, leaves in a parking lot, an open sky gridded with power lines, cars passing on a night highway. Supposed place-markers, the store signs and municipal buildings provide no orientation. We could be anywhere; we could be nowhere. The film ends with a realization of sorts, as Yun speaks to his mother's memory. "My home is you, me, Michelle, Chris, Dad," he says. "Now you are gone, I'm homeless."

Yun's work provides the show's closest thing to a resolution: home is not composed of geographic coordinates, but of memories and relationships. I would tell this to my friend, the one who lives in San Francisco and searches for jobs in New York, if I thought it would help. He's already home, I would say, he just doesn't know it.

Insider/Outsider is on display at Root Division, located at 3175 17th St., San Francisco, through Tuesday, July 29, 2008. For more information, call 415-863-7668.

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