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Working Within White Space

Joseph Mora examines the condition of the institution

By Arts & Culture, Featured

“Condition Report” exhibition title wall beside shades of paint in the piece “CV.”

Joseph Mora has a new exhibition at Yes Project Space in the Zhou B Arts Center titled “Condition Report.” Mora says the show represents a reflective moment in his career that showcases his technical skill in a gallery setting, also creating a space to process his feelings about the art institutions that he has worked for. “My goals for the show is to [use] the tools to talk about some of my experiences but then also always relating it back to immigrant issues or immigration issues in the United States. Kind of dealing with two different types of bureaucracies that I exist in.”

Section of Mora’s “Condition Report” gallery space shows marked floors, a lengthy tape strip hanging from the wall, mounted painted wood canvas, and suspended pedestals. Photo by Mike Mosher.

Mora (BFA 2018), is the Assistant Director of Exhibitions and Staff Advisor for the SITE Galleries and INCUBATOR at the School of Art Institute of Chicago and works as both a mentor for students and an advocate for the immigrant community in Chicago. The feelings associated with the institution of art are on both of our minds as the SAIC Spring 2024 semester comes to an end and questions of institutional change loom large at the close. Student protests over Gaza and the clashes with police keep at the fore not only imagery of war but also of displacement.  After discussing Mora’s own experience of displacement and assimilation, he admits that he is working to find himself in the world of contemporary art through the arduous process of learning the nuances of a predominately white art environment. “Can the institution incorporate some of me?” is the question Mora’s show poses through manipulation of the space and structures artists work in.

Mora’s mentorship and expertise are essential in the work of the student-run gallery SITE. Prior to Mora’s show, in 2023 the show “Install Situation,” curated by I Chein Chen (MFA Architecture 2023) and Che Pai (MFA Photo 2024), was informed by the work of the SITE gallery install team under Mora’s leadership. During the “Install Situation” exhibition, the curators pointed out that everything in the gallery was collaborative and the performance of the gallery install team pulled on a sense of identity, especially as international students. At the time when I witnessed the performance, students did a dance of applying blue painter’s tape to the gallery floor while reading notes of their experience of labor, each switching between reciting notes and applying tape. An excerpt of the notes written by Zhuyan Ye (MFA PHOTO 2022), Chia Chun Huang (BFA 2025), and Yīxiāo Yao (BFA VCS 2023) read, “Every day I do the same labor. Different but the same. Labor of maintaining will never reach perfection but the audience will never notice. Maintaining/Maintenance. Never stops. Maintain so you can maintain together. Maintain time.” The performance speaks about an industry of art that requires maintaining objects that are prized and seen and the effect it has on people who labor invisibly to maintain the object and space.

Similar to the performance of “The Install Situation” the objects in Mora’s “Condition Report” exhibition make visible the work of immigrants in Chicago. Situated in a traditional gallery setting are stunning white walls that the viewer is invited to inspect. What is revealed highlights the unseen expertise that is required to prepare a gallery space. The walls are without holes and the floor is clean. In the right corner is a section with a sample variety of white paint; on the other end, two pedestals are suspended from the wall with a cable, a piece of plexiglass held between each pedestal in tension. These two works, “CV” and “Neither You nor I Are In Control” are what we discussed during our visit.

“CV,” swatches of different shades of white paint various galleries use on their walls. Photo by Mike Mosher.

In the piece titled “CV,” Mora presents paint from SITE Galleries, Mana Contemporary, The National Museum of  Mexican Art, SAIC Galleries, Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago Art Department, and Marwen as he recounts the stories and techniques he has learned from these specific job sites. “The one that is tan is the Mexican Museum of Art. The curator vowed to never paint the museum white. In the bucket, it looked like white but when I put it next to other shades you see it is tan, especially next to the paint used at Mana Contemporary. Color and color theory is a political decision.” This work reflects trends in gallery and museum spaces that incorporate color to reflect the identity of the artist presented. The stark lack of color is akin to the process of assimilation in Mora’s view.

“Neither You nor I Are In Control,” Two leaning white pedestals ratchet strapped together with plexiglass in between, suspended from the wall with hooks and cord. Photo by Mike Mosher

Across the way are two pedestals ratchet strapped together with a piece of plexiglass sandwiched between. The assembled piece is tilted over and secured by a butterfly anchor in drywall. Underneath are two cushions that do not touch each other.The piece feels precarious and provocative. The glass in between compels the viewer to watch as the suspended work dares to break. The work is about the tension and uncertainty of what happens as an art handler and the experience living as an undocumented DACA citizen in the US. “I am using process and tools to talk about anxiety, stress, depression — The condition of the gallery,” said Mora.

“Neither You nor I Are In Control,” cord and hook connection to ratchet strap on the suspended pedestal. Photo by Mike Mosher.

“Neither You nor I Are In Control,” two suspended pedestals strapped together with glass in between leaning back on a foam square. Photo by Mike Mosher.

His thesis work titled “Undocumented Projects” (2018 -2019) started as a kit made to assist a collaborative effort to care for migrant families. Five years later, Mora has developed from being a 2D artist to an installation artist introducing new conceptual work.

The development of Mora’s work from coordinating between groups outside of an institution in his thesis work “Undocumented Projects”, to using the tools of the institution to create structure in “Condition Report” is very relevant today as many artists ask themselves where they are located in the white space of contemporary art and if they can work within the existing structures. And if they do, what condition will they find themselves in as a result? The precarious survival of immigrants and displaced people is conjoined to a sense of dislocation that both “Condition Report” and “The Install Situation” seek to understand. The most vulnerable members of society work to maintain, while other members of our community challenge the institution to rethink its structure through demonstration and protest. In the final week before summer, we are all asking what conditions we are willing to live with to work within an institution and how will we be changed as a result.

 

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