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  • Writer's pictureJason Jenn

Alex Donis

Another one of my STAFF PICKS created for the Torrance Art Museum.

Alex Donis / Officer Moreno and Joker, 2001 / From the series: WAR / Oil and enamel on plexiglass /41″ x 28″ / Private collection

Art provides many functions in contributing to the overall health of a community, including the thoughtful critique of its various systems and institutions. It can reflect the harsh realities of complex situations and offer up a new vision of possibility. That’s part of what makes the works of Alex Donis, like Officer Moreno and Joker among my all-time favorites. Donis is known for his portrayals of peaceful, playful comradery and/or love between typically historical adversaries. It’s a beautiful, timeless concept; imagining what could be if humanity could set aside their differences.

However, transforming enemies into friends and lovers is a daunting task – as we surely understand in this day and age. The concept is easier said than done, and easier portrayed in art than actualized in reality. But the hope and effort to make it possible matters. It’s only by pushing the cultural boundaries of expectations that we make progress and expand our collective understanding, but there’s often a lot of push-back. The creation and exhibition of such artwork can attract a lot of ire in the process of sharing.

Sgt. J.J. Wilder & Cpt. J.D Butler (Giselle) US Civil War, 2006 / From the series: Pas De Deux / Oil, ink, & enamel on canvas / 36″ x 36″

Since “toppling societies’ conventional attitudes…influenced by a tri-cultural (Pop, Latin and Queer) experience” is part of his artistic statement, Donis is no stranger to controversy in his career. His exhibitions have often been subject to vandalism and/or threats. His 1997 exhibition at Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco portrayed iconic same-sex figures kissing each other, like that of Che Guevara with Cesar Chavez and popstar Madonna with Mother Theresa. The installation was vandalized twice within two weeks of its opening. In 2001, his exhibition WAR at the Watts Tower Arts Center was pulled down/censored a mere three days after its opening by the LA City Cultural Affairs Department when members of the Watts community threatened vehement protest. The gay thematic tones coupled with the tense history of gun violence hit a sensitive spot in its depiction of LAPD officers engaged in same-sex dance poses with gang members. It’s hard to know which of the two controversial issues was more difficult for the community to see on view in the art, but one can certainly speculate.

Twenty years later, Donis’ works are as relevant as ever. They remind me what it could be like if more people in the world were lovers, not fighters. Dancing certainly looks more fun.

“My work for many years has been to understand hatred in society and how, as an artist, to dissolve it by bridging vast social divides.” – Alex Donis (WAR Press Release, September 27, 2001)
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