If there’s one image that has commonly symbolized the post-war American dream, it’s probably the small house outside the city with a front yard, a white picket fence and a two-car garage. But what if you lived in that neighborhood and in that house without a car? And, to make matters more difficult, what if there wasn’t a bus, subway or rail system to get you into the city where you worked?
That question is the focus of an ongoing series of photographs by Alejandro Cartagena, a Dominican-born and Monterrey, Mexico-based artist who will give a lecture discussing his work at the UNC Asheville Humanities Lecture Hall on Tuesday, March 17.
Cartagena’s work examines the warped realities of “suburban” life in his adopted hometown. “It starts with a personal matter,” Cartagena says. “I am not from Mexico, though most of my work is about Mexico, and I am a Mexican citizen now. That really shapes my need to understand where I am.”
Monterrey, the country’s third-largest city and the capital of the northeastern state of Nuevo León, is home to more than a million people. Another 3 million live in satellite towns and villages in Monterrey’s metropolitan shadow. Most of the jobs, however, exist within the city, forcing many to commute for work.
Cartagena first shed light on these worker-locality struggles in the late 2000s with a five-part series called Suburbia Mexicana. The works looked at the environmental, social and geographical impact of nearly half a million government built and/or subsidized cookie-cutter style homes constructed earlier in that decade. One of the more significant problems, as Cartagena illustrated, is the isolation caused by a sparse or completely nonexistent transportation infrastructure. While many residents own their own homes, due to limited resources, few own vehicles and are stranded outside the city. The artist refers to these townships as “Fragmented Cities.”
“Cartagena’s work combines a trained and observant eye with an awareness of common needs, obligations and social constructs,” says Cynthia Canejo, an associate professor of art history at UNCA and event organizer. “There is also a sense of humor,” she says, which shows up in Cartagena’s repetition of forms and in the way he’s arranged his compositions.
The photographer depicts hundreds of multicolored, under-construction row houses as Legolike pegs pushed into the valleys and jagged hillsides. They’re serene images, often shot at sunset to illuminate the houses against the landscape. They’re also completely devoid of life, giving them an added surreal nature. “All the research I have done has led me deeper and deeper into things I would not have seen otherwise,” he says. “For me, the core issue in my work is the growth of a city, its causes and unintended consequences.”
While Suburbia Mexicana focuses on man’s presence via landscape alteration, Car Poolers, Cartagena’s most recent body of work and the title of his new book, sheds light on the plight of the individual within that fragmented landscape. It also brings new meaning to the high occupancy vehicle lane.
Car Poolers features aerial snapshots of day laborers and construction workers riding in the backs of pickup trucks and flatbeds. Each photo was taken from a pedestrian bridge stretched over a highway that runs into and out of Monterrey.
Many of the same vehicles appear over and over, with different passengers. Cartagena’s subjects are mostly men, young and old, alone or with two to four others. They read newspapers, talk and sleep, not unlike urban photography scenes of bus and subway commuters. Only, these commuters are exposed to the elements. In a few images the anonymous passengers are huddled under blankets or curled up to stay warm on colder morning. Occasionally, on warmer days, an image captures someone laid out on his back, just staring up at the sky as if dreaming.
This event is free and open to the public. For more information on Cartagena and his work, visit alejandrocartagena.com.
WHO: Photographer Alejandro Cartagena gives a lecture and photo presentation on worker isolation and identity.
WHERE: UNC Asheville’s Humanities Lecture Hall, unca.edu
WHEN: Tuesday, March 17, at 6:30 p.m.