By Tucker Neel
While discussing Jean Genet’s identification with a tube of Vaseline as a sign of the outlaw homosexual’s place in a hostile straight world, the historian and cultural critic Dick Hebdige notes, “Like Genet also, we are intrigued by the most mundane objects – a safety pin, a pointed shoe, a motor cycle – which, none the less, like the tube of Vaseline, take on a symbolic dimension, becoming a form of stigmata, tokens of a self-imposed exile”. In a manner similar to Genet, Martin Durazo pays close attention to the trappings of subculture. He trades in the objects we use to signal our allegiance to, and place in the margins of society. Depending on your position within the cultural strata, an object as mundane as a handkerchief in Durazo’s work can signal working class affiliations, or extreme SM sex play – or both. A small installation of mirrors can stand for modernist design or a cocaine platter – or both. Yet with his work, Durazo always demands that viewers investigate their own place in meaning construction, actively engage in a play of semiotics, and understand how the choices we make may or may not be our own.
Yet, Durazo does not simply combine objects hoping for meaning to resolve itself. Instead, he makes informed and researched decisions in order to address complex and frustrating issues, from legal and illegal drug trades, to prisons, psychedelic substances, pornography, altered states of mind, and extreme sub-cultural affiliations. These are subjects many who see his work realize exist, but would rather not engage – at least in a “proper” public setting.
While he is no stranger to hanging isolated works on gallery walls, Durazo also constructs complex installations that look like impromptu house parties, teenage drug dens, or DIY pharmacies. Durazo’s 2010 Pain Management 100 exhibition transformed the gallery into a site for symposia, naps, raves, workshops, and the occasional drinking session. Somewhere in between, Durazo created “art”: paintings, sculptures, videos, and installations informed by these investigative interactions. The resulting conglomeration of transitory works address questions of just what kind of altered states compliment and facilitate their own appropriate environments, and vice versa. Using materials as diverse as black lights, fountains, masks, magnifying glasses, and a wealth of illicit paraphernalia, the artist charted the porous line delineating, and connecting, the legal pharmaceutical drug trade with its criminal counterpart. Through his ongoing interest in the people impacted by the drug war, Durazo poses a contemporary, yet timeless drama, highlighting the aesthetics of the modern scapegoat who, like the ancient Greek pharmakos, is cast aside into wilderness and isolation (or prison or underground economies) as a way for society to cleanse itself, maintain its own sense of righteous solidarity and cohesiveness in the face of immeasurable complexity and instability.
With his latest ongoing project, “Plata o Plomo,” Durazo continues this investigation, articulating the problematic choices one must make when inhabiting shifting positions of agency. “Plata o plomo” translates to “silver or lead,” a question posed by drug cartels demanding cooperation from legal and political figures involved in the war on drugs. This question asks one to chose between a bribe – monetary rewards from illicit and illegal drug trades, and lead – from a bullet. Durazo sometimes directly references popular images from the drug war in this recent work, whether with a transparency of a hanged victim dangling from an overpass, or copied images of traffickers worshiping Santa Muerte (the Saint of Death), or surveillance footage of famous pageant queens caught transporting drugs across the border. Though he does employ these readable signs, the artist’s work gets at his subject more tangentially, through the juxtaposition of incongruous materials and suggestive pairings.
Often, Durazo employs reflection as a device to engage the viewer and bring up questions of identity and allegiance. In one signature piece, “PLOMO,” the artist places two large mirrors atop one another, spray-painting the word “PLOMO” on protective plastic covering the bottom mirror. Like it’s fun house cousins, the top mirror bends and bows awkwardly, producing a skewed reflection of the viewer and the gallery, as if to call attention to one’s own complicity, or inspire a moment of self-acknowledgement. The bottom “PLOMO” mirror, in a state of opaque protection, registers as death and the absence of light. It’s an alarming work, eloquently summing up the artist’s engagement with the troubling subject of impossible choices, the struggle to reconcile ones self-image when confronted with Faustian choices – a bribe or a bullet, existence in service of something you don’t believe in, or nonexistence and exile into oblivion.
 Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, (1979; reprint, New York: Routledge, 2001), 2.