Until 31 May, the exhibition ‘Welcome to America’ by Ryan Mendoza will be on show in the Livingstone Gallery in The Hague. In 2010, British newspaper The Guardian headlined that homes in an American ghost town were offered for a symbolic amount of $1. Detroit, the industrial American city in the state of Michigan was once dubbed ‘Motor City’ as it thrived because of car magnate Henry Ford. The city, in which Motown was founded, was once among the richest cities in America. In 2008, the credit crunch struck a decisive blow in a city that had been ravaged by drug violence since the 1980s. General Motors went bankrupt, factories closed and houses were foreclosed en masse. Neighbourhoods turned into slums, the population fell from 1.8 million to 700,000 and the city became the symbol of the financial crisis in America.
American artist Ryan Mendoza visited the city in 2013 after living in Europe for 20 years. He was deeply impressed, but also felt that many Europeans didn’t really grasp the depth of this crisis in Detroit. He decided to move one of these foreclosed houses to the Netherlands, where it was shown to the public during Art Rotterdam in 2016. The project was made possible by a successful crowdfunding campaign and a collaboration between the art fair, the Verbeke Foundation, the artist and Livingstone Gallery. The artist wanted the house to tell a story. A born and bred New Yorker, Mendoza also saw the installation as a way to reconnect to his American identity. Mendoza: “All my work is about things and people who have been forgotten on a certain level. I’m one lucky artist indeed to freeze in time a piece of my country’s history, and freeze in time myself along with it. Through salvaging one house from demolition, and by transporting it and rebuilding it at Art Rotterdam, I can give people from all over Europe the chance not only to walk into one man’s memories, but to walk also into one country’s collective aspirations and unanticipated shortcomings". The house is now on show in the Verbeke Foundation and Mendoza's wife Fabia Mendoza made a documentary about the project.
Ryan Mendoza, The Bride, 2007, Livingstone gallery.
The Livingstone gallery exhibit features a series of photographs and documentation from the Detroit House Project, along with some of Mendoza’s paintings and drawings. Because above all, Mendoza is a painter. He is inspired by old techniques and by other artists such as Lucian Freud, Chuck Close and Alex Katz. For his paintings and drawings, he often looks at old photographs, that he buys at flea markets during his travels. Because these people are often no longer alive, the people in his paintings also regularly appear to be lifeless or dead.
Mendoza currently divides his time between Naples and Berlin. Berlin is often compared to today's Detroit, which has slowly blossomed due to the influx of artists seduced by cheap housing. Mendoza is politically engaged and was even arrested in 2012 - along with Fabia, who was 8 months pregnant at the time - when he gave a performance in Naples in an expression of solidarity with the Russian punk-rock band Pussy Riot. In 2017, he painted a facade in Moscow in the colours of the American flag. He completed the art project by adding a series of 50 photos with the significant title ‘Putin, my Putin’. In 2016, Artnet compiled a list of the 500 most successful artists in the 50 years between 1966 and 2016, placing Mendoza on #147.
Ryan Mendoza, Untitled (Sisters), 2005, Livingstone gallery.
Mendoza was also involved in two other projects in Detroit. For ‘The Invitation’ (2016), he made bullet holes in two houses during the election period that spelled the names Trump and Clinton. He invited the presidential candidates, but both candidates declined his invitation. With the project, Mendoza tried to draw attention to the story of its 60-year-old resident, a nurse who lived in these abandoned shacks while battling cancer at the same time. In the same year, Mendoza also rescued the home of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, in partnership with the niece of this American icon. Rosa Parks famously refused to sit in the back of the bus in 1955, a rule imposed by racist segregation laws. Her refusal formed a symbolic start for the American civil rights movement (even though technically, she wasn’t the first). Her cousin Rhea McCauley was disappointed at the fact that her aunt - and this important historic site - is not getting the appreciation she deserves, so she stated that until she gains that recognition, the house is going to be a place where Park's legacy is valued. The house was shipped and rebuilt in Berlin. McCauley: ”I know she has streets named after her and medals and awards, but I'm talking about truly understanding the significance of Auntie Rosa. I have talked to young people and they don't even know who my aunt is. And that's a shame. It's not their fault, but we as a country need to acknowledge, and if we can't, you know, I'll take her where she is acknowledged.” Both Mendoza and McCauley hope that the house will eventually return to the United States. In 2018, the house was temporarily exhibited in Rhode Island.
Ryan Mendoza's exhibition ‘Welcome to America’ can be seen in Livingstone Gallery in The Hague until May 31.