We’re standing in a courtyard behind White Box’s large Lower East Side gallery space, which, in a former life, was a speakeasy. A rambunctious storyteller with a buoyant Spanish accent, Juan Puntes, the 59-year-old director of the alternative art haven, is reminiscing about his hometown of Zaragoza, Spain, which once hosted a U.S. Air Force Base visited by B-52s armed with nuclear weapons.
“I really didn’t like the U.S., as an empire,” Puntes says of his teenage years, which coincided with the war in Vietnam. But after evading Franco’s draft in 1973 and following a girlfriend to America, “My first vision was JFK—smoggy, and a guy has a heart attack, and an ambulance comes through the smog, and I say, ‘Shit. I’m in some place!'” He laughs, his eyes wide at the memory.
A high-school dropout, Puntes had been involved with radical theater in Europe, but, needing a job, he drifted to Rochester, New York, where he was struck by the poverty in that decaying city. He worked in a factory: “Punch-pressing, cutting metal, bending shit. Just like Captain Beefheart—’SHHISS- BAAHHG-OOM-BOOWW!'” He then studied art in Boston, moving to New York City in 1983, exhibiting his paintings along the way. Next came a teaching gig at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where, he says, “Out of sheer boredom, I open a space, I call it the White Box Gallery.”
Amid Philadelphia’s small gallery scene, Puntes’s non-academic, international programming attracted notice, and soon critics, artists, and curators were asking if they could organize exhibits. In 1998, White Box landed in Chelsea, where Puntes mounted shows of mid-career provocateurs such as the body artist Carolee Schneemann, along with polemical young upstarts from around the world. (It relocated to Broome Street in 2008.)
One memorable exhibition series, “Six Feet Under: Make Nice,” came about when Puntes heard Ed Koch imploring New Yorkers to welcome out-of-towners attending the 2004 Republican convention. Instead, responding to the Bush administration’s ongoing campaign of 9-11 fear-mongering, one artist walled off the gallery with pink razor wire; another employed video posters—recalling those 9-11 “missing” flyers—to highlight the plight of the 700 Muslims of “special interest” who had disappeared into FBI custody, many eventually deported despite scant evidence of wrongdoing.
Disappearances will be on viewers’ minds at “China-ism II, Democracy or Economy?” (opening September 13), which will feature photographs and a video by Ai Weiwei, who recently emerged from a Chinese prison after being held for “suspected economic crimes”—Beijing doublespeak for punishment of an artist internationally famous for his trenchant installations. (Ai’s collection of thousands of colorful backpacks commemorating children crushed to death when shoddily constructed school buildings collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake particularly galled corrupt higher-ups.)
The show will also include paintings by Anton S. Kandinsky, a Russian who ramps up the kitsch factor of Warhol’s Mao icons by posing The Chairman with Stalin or Uncle Sam, their mugs surrounded by gemstones. By comparison, a still from Ai’s video—a sepia self-portrait exposing head wounds he received during an earlier run-in with Chinese police—conveys the world-weary gravitas of late Rembrandt.
Such provocations have long been SOP at the nonprofit White Box. I ask Puntes what social impact he believes artists can truly achieve and mention critic Robert Hughes’s description of Tristan Tzara’s “chilly but true dictum that the politics of art is a tiny parody of the politics of real power.” Puntes counters by paraphrasing one of Tzara’s Dada manifestos aimed at the jingoistic elites who abetted the slaughter of World War I: “‘And from now on we will shit, but we will shit in many colors!'” Puntes and I both laugh, and he adds, “In French, it sounds nicer. But I’m here—we are shitting in colors.”
“China-ism II, Democracy or Economy?” White Box, 329 Broome Street, whiteboxny.org, September 13–October 9