Joke’s on Us: Hugo Montoya’s “Florida Man” at Et al.

Hugo Montoya, Doggie, 2022. Taxidermy, leash. Courtesy of Et al.

Directly across from the exhibition entrance in Hugo Montoya’s Florida Man, a taxidermied coyote holds a dog leash in its mouth. Doggie (2022) is visible through the storefront window from the street, its haunting presence startling to passersby who may not immediately read it as fake or as part of an art exhibition. I can’t see a coyote in an exhibition space and not think about Joseph Beuys’ pivotal artwork, I Like America and America Likes Me, the 1974 “social sculpture” where the artist spent three days cohabitating with a coyote in a New York gallery space. Beuys chose the coyote as a symbol of the United States’s spirit and saw the performance as a means of showing the US, which at the time was embroiled in the Vietnam War, how to heal economic and racial divisions by sitting with otherness, and through communication and listening.

Simply by placing a coyote in a gallery space, Montoya’s sculpture acknowledges this history, but in our current context the animal resonates at a geopolitical level as well: colloquially, a coyote is a person who smuggles immigrants across the US-Mexican border. The fact that Montoya’s coyote beckons with a leash in its mouth amplifies a more sinister reading. This layering of symbols and deft melding of the art historical with the political, is emblematic of Montoya’s practice. As in Doggie, much of Montoya’s work on view in the exhibition has the immediate punch of an effective one-liner. But belying each object is a tension that reveals the artist as a clever trickster—another archetype embodied by the wily canid—using subversive humor to call our attention to the complex historical and political undercurrents beneath even the most benign of symbols.

Hugo Montoya, Florida Man, 2022. Installation view, Et al., San Francisco, CA. courtesy of Et al.

Montoya works entirely from discarded materials, combining disparate found objects with items purchased cheaply from flea markets and garage sales to make his rough assemblages. Other writers have characterized these sculptures as riffs on readymades, and indeed they often have a Dadaist absurdity, but there is a kitschiness at play that for me makes these artworks more akin to Rauschenberg’s combines. See, for example, The America’s (2021): an assemblage combining a framed crude drawing sitting precariously on the wing tips of a carved wooden eagle. The drawing depicts a racist caricature of a man wearing a blue sombrero, a tear falling from one eye, and with a collaged image of a Budweiser bottle in his outstretched hand. Here Montoya nods to eagles as a symbol for the US, and the painting’s position atop the eagle suggests that the problematic image comes from the US itself. The fact that the caricature seems to be offering another symbol, this one of Western capitalism exported in the form of a beer, however, turns this initial reading on its head. In this way, Montoya’s assemblage acts as a kind of mirror, reflecting our own ideologies back at us.

Hugo Montoya, The America’s, 2021. Framed painting, carved wood. Courtesy of Et al.
Hugo Montoya, The America’s, 2021. Framed painting, carved wood. Courtesy of Et al.

Nearby, Hard Heart (2021) presents another tenuously constructed assemblage of two paintings leaning up against each other. One painting features a portrait of an Indigenous man in a feathered headdress rendered only in shades of red, and partially ruined, ripped in several places across the center with its stretcher broken and jutting out from the canvas. The image itself uses generalizing stereotypes, like it was painted from a stock photo. Paired with the single reddish hue, it reads as a color study for a painting class. The other is a still life painting on board of a human skull that, likewise, seems like a discarded study from an art class. When combined, haphazardly supporting each other, the two paintings read as two halves of a coin, perhaps a kind of commemoration. Montoya does not necessarily ask us to lament the genocide of Native Americans at the hands of our government. Instead, we are called to witness the death of this kind of prescribed and prosaic image of the Indigenous peoples communicated through the torn and destroyed portrait painting.

Hugo Montoya, Hard Heart, 2021. Painting on canvas, painting on board. Courtesy of Et al.
Hugo Montoya, Hard Heart, 2021. Painting on canvas, painting on board. Courtesy of Et al.

The exhibition’s title, Florida Man, is itself a sort of combine, as it refers both to the internet meme and the artist who is himself, a Florida man, hailing from Gainesville. The meme’s internet presence has waxed and waned since it emerged sometime in 2013 on a Twitter thread collating clickbait headlines about crimes committed mostly by men in Florida. In an essay from two years ago in The Washington Post Magazine, Logan Hill suggests that there is a moral ambiguity of laughing at the Florida Man meme, claiming, “At its most insensitive, Florida Man profits by punching down at the homeless, drug-addicted or mentally ill.” Any autobiographical subtext Montoya’s exhibition title lends to the works on view is elusive, but I think the artist is aware of this complicated resonance of the meme as it relates to our perception of otherness in individuals. Like in the works discussed earlier, here Montoya employs humor to subvert our expectations of what a Florida Man actually is: in this case, an artist, deftly revealing the problematic architecture of our cultural touchstones.

Hugo Montoya: Florida Man
January 21–February 26, 2022
Et al. , San Francisco, CA

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