A wide shot of a ceramics studio, featuring students working with pottery wheels and other tools.

Status Symbols

by Zoya Brumberg (MA 2015)

“It’s seductive to me, but at the same time, it’s repulsive,” Brooklyn-based sculptor and photographer Luis Gispert (BFA 1996) says as he describes commercial imagery of the American youth and street cultures that permeate his works. As a Cuban-American born and raised in Miami, Gispert grew up fascinated with but removed from the hip-hop and Latina subcultures represented in his sculptures, videos, and photographs. Take Can it be that it was all so simple then…, a video piece in which an Asian-American woman in a cheerleader costume lip-synchs an obscene string of insults voiced by someone we are led to believe is a black man. This is just one example of the ways Gispert intentionally constructs works that are ambiguously funny, disgusting, confusing, evocative, and even a little sexy all at the same time. Though these pieces often come with political implications, Gispert says that he doesn’t want it to come off as a pure critique of the commodity cultures they emulate.

Gispert broke into the contemporary art scene when one of his cheerleader pieces was included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. His work has now been shown in spaces as diverse and widespread as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Royal Academy in London, and Gagosian Gallery. Over the past few years, Gispert has moved away from the kinds of portraits and videos of women that dominated his earlier work. In this exclusive SAIC interview, Gispert discusses his fascination with low-rider modification subcultures, car-clubs, and the projects that ensued; his series Decepción—a word that means “disillusionment” in Spanish but reads as “deception” in English—focuses exclusively on vehicles that some of these low-rider car-culture enthusiasts had reupholstered in bootlegged brand-name designer patterns like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Burberry, Versace, Coach, Gucci, and Fendi. Gispert places these decked-out dashboards in front of real landscapes that he shot while traveling worldwide for talks and exhibitions. The fantasy-like, photo-shopped “real” natural terrains highlight the decadence of these faux branded fabrics, which mimic icons of wealth in new forms that do not resemble any products made by the original designers. These “escape vehicles,” as Gispert refers to them, exemplify the visual culture of branding and the commodity, encapsulating what wealth looks like in contemporary American culture.

Gispert’s large-scale projects embody his conflicted feelings surrounding American subcultures and ethnic identities. His cheerleader photographs and videos represent women—mostly of color—wearing both the obvious sport uniforms and the jewelry, hairstyles, and accents that signify Latin-influenced youth cultures. The vehicles that Gispert captures in his more recent another kind a uniform—a self-imposed, faux-designer vestment that likewise represents the commodity traps that are simultaneously appealing and oppressive. Gispert’s work captures a balance of the ennui and pleasure that occupy contemporary American life, touching on questions of identity, consumer culture, and performativity that affect the day-to-day lives of his audiences.