Splinters of Mexico 

I first saw the landmark exhibition, Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries, in New York, where I was living at the time. My second encounter with that sprawling survey was during a brief return visit to San Antonio, where it was installed at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Same show (mostly), different contexts, different responses. I remember thinking how familiar, yet imposing, the show felt here on Jones Avenue, where it had felt dwarfed by the encyclopedic scope of the Metropolitan Museum.

I thought about those experiences during a visit to Museo Alameda’s two small-scale exhibitions of art from Mexico, shows that ultimately will be most satisfying to visitors who possess enough knowledge of Mexican history, art, and culture — knowledge that will allow them to fill in numerous gaps created by curatorial choices, as well as space constraints.

The Museo’s first floor is the venue for an exhibition of works from the Museo Soumaya de México, which showcases the collection of Carlos Slim, who, according to some sources, has surpassed Bill Gates to claim the title of “world’s richest man.” It’s important to bear this in mind as you make your way through this miniature gem of a show, which is arranged both chronologically and thematically. The selections on view reflect one individual’s point of view, i.e., Slim’s version of Mexican art history. Caveat aside, the exhibition affords San Antonio a look at some stunning examples of artistic production from South Texas’s other half.

The exhibition announces Slim’s apparent nationalist pride by opening not with a religious painting, or a pre-Columbian artifact (none of those in evidence here), or a canvas by one of Mexico’s famous S.R.O. troika (Siqueiros, Rivera, and Orozco, a.k.a. “los tres grandes”), but with an allegorical 1946 painting by Jorge González Camarena titled “Beautiful Mexico.” Painted in a style highly reminiscent of the chromolithography familiar to us here as calendar and tourism-poster art, González depicts light-skinned maidens, who represent the country’s various regions, and impossibly perfect fruits that spill to the canvas’s lower edges. (Read through a less aestheticized, more politicized contemporary lens, the work takes on an entirely different meaning if we understand that the fruit of Madre México — her most abundant export today — is cheap labor.)

The exhibition is a compressed survey; it is as if the vast sweep of Mexican art history has been truncated, then miniaturized and squeezed into one brief, but luscious issue of Reader’s Digest, the one you’ll save long after you’ve donated stacks of them to Goodwill. For example, six works — lovely, but not dazzling — make up the “Mexican Landscape” section, too few to do full justice to the genre.

If we accept the exhibition’s limitations and view the show on its own terms, the curators and Museo administration must meet us halfway by giving us access to as much interpretive and contextualizing information as possible. Here’s the most glaring reason: The few paintings and objects that comprise the section devoted to Baroque art include an abstract painting, “La capilla del Rosario” / “The Rosary Chapel,” dated 1960, by Juan Soriano. (Because it is one of several paintings by the Tapatío artist in the show, we can assume he is a favorite of el patrón.) Yes, there is an exuberance of rhythm and color in the Soriano, which resonates nicely with the Baroque aesthetic. However, what is strikingly, even playfully obvious to the trained eye is a source of nagging confusion to the casual viewer.

Three examples of Mexican casta (caste) paintings from the mid- to late-18th century, when taken together with the show’s religious-themed works, create a potent historical statement that speaks volumes about Mexico’s past — and her present. But again, that’s a connection the visitor must make on her own. The show’s interpretive wall text does not exactly encourage that sort of curiosity or exploration.

Among the show’s several jewels are masterworks by Siqueiros (who must be another Slim fave), Tamayo, O’Higgins, Bustos, Dr. Atl, and Rivera. Yes, the machos are much in evidence here, so much so that las mujeres (Frida who?) are conspicuous by their absence.

The theme of abundance, so lushly underscored by González Camarena’s paintings in the Slim exhibition (read that as you will), gives way to an angst-ridden, whirring, tongue-in-cheek guiding ethos in the Museo’s second-floor exhibition, Escultura Social: A New Generation of Art from Mexico City, that challenges and shakes up definitions of sculpture and public space. The show was organized by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, whose gallery space is ginormous compared to Museo Alameda’s.

María Alós’s videos, “Welcome” and “Farewell,” play on a continuous loop near the entrance and exit to the exhibition. Read from a script, Alós’s work is a stinging comment on our media-saturated culture, where the noise of daily life drones on endlessly — to the point of being rendered meaningless. It also alludes to our consumerist impulses (“Hello! Welcome to Wal-Mart!”). Last week, at the show’s opening, several local actors gave live performances of Alós’s videos, forcing a few unwitting guests to become part of the satiric “performance.” Perhaps if the performers (the paid ones) had been directed to play up the automaton aspect, it might have gotten the point across more bitingly. On Thursday night, the compulsory interactive performance left in its wake a few energized visitors and a few who felt as if one had been put over on them.

We know we’ve left the hours of splendor that is the downstairs exhibition as soon as we reach Yoshua Okón’s video installation. Here the jargony text label reads: “Okón’s works mediate and record ordinary people’s lives” (emphasis mine), as if taking its cue from artist Joseph Beuys, whose views loom large over this show (he is quoted extensively in the exhibition’s introductory wall label). But as with the downstairs survey, the concept-heavy upstairs exhibition leaves much unsaid; it requires large doses of critical, far-ranging thinking if we’re to be fully engaged — the artists’ commonly, though not always clearly stated goal. One of the major, largely unspoken themes here is Mexico’s bête noire, its enduring class distinctions. (Remember those caste paintings downstairs?)

While all of the works in this genuinely terrific, if somewhat predictable show (There’s the requisite video! The elegant text-based installation! The provocative juxtaposition!) are, to some degree, focused on issues of global concern, Pablo Helguera’s photo documentary of a 120-day journey through the hemisphere is an often poignant reminder of how easily cultures and languages — markers of diversity, in other words — fall victim to hegemonic steamrolling. The series of 36 digital prints opens with an image of Helguera’s “nomadic think-tank,” titled “The School of Panamerican Unrest” (2006), visiting Chief Marie Smith Jones, the last native speaker of Eyak, an Alaskan aboriginal language. During the visit, Jones, who died earlier this year, told Helguera an Eyak myth: a blind man, aided by an animal, is given sight, only to regret being able to see the bad things of the world. The moral resonates strongly through these contemporary works. Helguera’s series comes full circle: It concludes with an image that documents the School’s visit with Cristina Calderón (known simply as “la Abuela” in her tiny Chilean village), the last native speaker of Yaghan. If we take to heart Beuys’ philosophy that “social sculpture,” an evolutionary process, compels us to acknowledge “the creative potential in everyone,” the loss of Jones and Calderón, and other tradition-bearers like them, is a painful one. Helguera’s work, seen in that light, takes on a deeply elegiac tone.

Widespread appropriation is on view as well, often to great effect, as in Dr. Lakra’s tattooed vintage pin-ups, which feature Maori-inspired markings on a Vargas va-va-voom babe, among others. Rather than paint graffiti on walls, Lakra’s “canvas” is the human body, or, more precisely, an idealized representation of the body. The pin-up calendar girls of the Slim collection have here been endowed with specifically grounded cultural pride. Soy indígena, and don’t you forget it! Lakra’s subjects seem to say. Like Rivera and his triumvirate, the cause of the underclass is taken up by several artists — never mind that they themselves are part of Mexico’s cultural elite and have benefited enormously from that status, which affords them ready access to the international contemporary-art circuit. This strain of “Chardonnay socialism,” as an Australian friend calls it, becomes a source of complicated loyalties and realities.

There are more conventional examples of sculpture, among them Abraham Cruzvillegas’ “Rond point,” which appears to break up the gallery space if one stands in the right spot, playing with the viewer’s spatial perspective. (The work’s title refers to a French method of language acquisition.)

Even seemingly light, humorous works, such as the video “Sixteen” by Los Súper Elegantes, contain mordant subtexts. Bouncy music accompanies this comment on the telenovela and music-video phenomena. The “Juliet” in the “Romeo and Juliet” variation stuffs herself into a garbage can to be “collected” and rescued from her domineering, shotgun-toting mother. Woman as cultural detritus? ¡Ay, madre! (Like “Sixteen,” Mexico-Argentina collaborations are well-represented here. This is not surprising, considering that the two countries are juggernauts of Latin American contemporary art — or the facets of that art which circulate internationally.)

Be sure to allow time for viewing Carlos Amorales’s animation video, “Useless Wonder” (2006), with soundtrack by Julián Lede, an Argentine. The video is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s only full-length novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Amorales’s coolly elegant evocation of Poe is arresting — its constant, untethered motion is braided with avian creepiness, pace Hitchcock.

As I walked toward the downstairs exit, a guard was announcing a guided tour of the Slim exhibit. The galleries were filled with gente: abuelas, baby carriages, and señoras in their Sunday best — a demographic not seen regularly at the city’s other art museums. An elderly visitor asked the guard, “In English or in Spanish?” “English only,” was the curt response. ¡Carajo!

I stopped at Siqueiros’s dark “Portrait of a Living Girl, a Dead Girl” (1931) and thought about the grinding, but entirely appropriate juxtaposition of these two exhibitions. Siqueiros’s painting could serve as a haunting, caustic — and more accurate — allegory of Mexico than its cheerier counterpart at the entrance. •



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