Make your way through the twists and turnarounds of Michael Arcega’s visual puns and titular wordplay exhibit one: El Conquistadork, the 2004 Spanish galleon constructed of Manila folders that he launched in Tomales Bay, a point in the historic trade route between Mexico and the Philippines and you’ll find yourself connecting the dots to the Manila, Philippines, native’s first artistic incarnation: an elementary school graffiti artist who once went by the tag Design.
"Then I switched it to Sen, then I got turned in and dwindled," Arcega says, recalling his eventual bust at Upland High School in Southern California. Yet school still rules the San Francisco Art Institute graduate’s world. The 34-year-old is currently hiding out in his Stanford studio, buried in first-year course work for an MFA. One can only wonder what the teenage Arcega would have made of the immaculate grounds of the so-called Farm he remembers thinking when he first made the move from Eagle Rock High in Los Angeles to Upland, "Oh my god, the walls are so clean here!" though today the artist clearly channels his subversive, pranking tendencies into pointed works executed with a meticulous hand and a puckish wink. Informed by ’90s multiculturalism but intent on moving forward, Arcega’s pieces, primarily sculptures and installations, upend language and probe the hybrids formed by cultural colonizers and the colonized.
Arcega’s exhibition at the de Young Museum, "Homing Pidgin," part of the "Collection Connections" series in which local artists make new art that reinterprets the museum’s objects, seems tailored for the San Francisco resident. He riffs off the Oceanic Art collection with the acuity and seemingly personal perspective found in such previous pieces as Terrorice, in which he conflates the United States’ "aid" supplies of arms and food with the construction of a rice AK-47 and grenade. Lingering in that zone where ha-ha morphs into aha, Arcega’s massive wooden Spork wittily spears the cultural-culinary invasions of fast food and the popular carved or painted salad utensils that populate souvenir shops in the Philippines while referencing the fact that most tribal cultures ate with their hands before the arrival of European explorers. The museum’s clubs, used in war and in ceremonial dances, are made over by Arcega, reenvisioned as intricate warships and barges topping ax handles and dance clubs one even emits pulsing disco lights perched on table legs. The artist also revisits mystery meats of the past and explodes them with Spam/Maps: Oceania, which replicates every teeny Pacific atoll using the canned luncheon meat and US occupationera military ration whose name is an anagram of maps.
It’s powerful stuff from a punny guy. "He can move seamlessly between media, with the highest level of creative skill, to create pieces that disseminate his point of view in both political and historical terms," Arcega’s gallerist Heather Marx pinpoints via e-mail. "His brilliant use of humor subtly challenges the traditional notions of art practice, thus veiling the weightiness of his messages."
Arcega has certainly traveled far from the moment he first glimpsed and then imitated the graf art in the basement of his elementary school. He’s since leapfrogged from illustration to painting, sculpture, performance, and installation before, as he says, "discovering text as a medium. Now I just pick from an arsenal of past explorations." But right now the rigors of the academy call. "I wanted to put things on hold while I was at school so I could play without consequence," he says happily. "It’s stepping back to leap forward."