By Elaine Wolff
There is some breathtaking work in Mexican Report, the large survey of contemporary Mexican art curated by Santiago Espinoza de los Monteros and produced by Blue Star Art Space and the Instituto de México. The plaster "landscapes" by Héctor Velásquez, covered in fine, variegated wool yarn; Betsabée Romero's giant patchwork pinwheel, each blade lit with an automobile headlight; the mixed media vendor's stall of talismans and figurines by Cisco Jiménez - each is worth an essay unto itself.
Velásquez' mountain terrain, composed of life-size closed fists patterned in earth tone yarn, echoes the harsh but beautiful landscape of southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico while recalling the hands of laborers and the raised fist of resistance. The equally poetic "Paisajes manos 1/Landscapes hands 1," makes an ocean of open palms, comprising and seeking the source of life.
The fabulous "Ambulante/Street Vendor" by Jiménez features large, roughly hewn heads whose gaping mouths echo their bulbous skulls, and tiny, Venus of Willendorf-like resin relics embedded in statuettes and preserved in jars, crowded into a flea-market display. As tempting as it is to touch, the work speaks of the uselessness of old talismans and traditional magic in the modern technological world.
There is quite a bit of exciting sculpture in the show, including two mixed-media works by Luis Ruiz that utilize plastic resin, Plexiglass, model cars, and plastic figurines to illustrate criminal culture. In "Golden Rain, or Death of the Accountant," a Cadillac sinks to the bottom of a lake, while three gangsters piss on the ersatz grave. In a sparer, more abstract and psychologically suggestive piece entitled "Ring Ring," a businessman walks out the front door of his transparent house, while a man with a gun plots outside a back window.
Some of the photography, too, is a standout, although here curator Espinoza has followed the trend of larger-than-life images - which, it has been noted elsewhere, speaks both to technological advances and to photography's aspiration to be held in the same rarefied esteem as painting. The image of a somewhat hirsute, naked man, one wide swathe shaved from head to toe, covers an entire wall in 5 sections. It would be as powerful at a tenth of that size. Two images by Alfredo de Stefano, on the other hand, are just right at 50-by-39.4 inches. "Machetes" in particular, with large scabbards embedded in a cracked lakebed, movingly resurrects images of fields of battle, for food against the elements, for life against aggression. "Luciernaga/Firefly," augments a similar photograph of flashlights on a lakebed at twilight by mounting it on a lightbox; here it works, but another literal amplification of a beautiful photograph by Gerardo Suter is unnecessary, and seems to imply a lack of faith in the medium's inherent power.
Betsabée Romero is one of the best-represented artists in the show, with three large pieces of varying impact and wide-ranging imagination. In addition to the pinwheel, "Rehilete/Shuttlecock," which exudes ingenuity and whimsy under harsh conditions, Espinoza also selected a one-room house, constructed of clay bricks made by the artist. Each brick is imprinted with a pattern copied from border-crossing signs that warn Americans to keep an eye out for illegal immigrants: On the trademark yellow background a father pulls a mother, who in turn pulls a young girl, all of them darting quickly across the highway. In one of her signature recastings of a tool of rough utility into an object of art, Romero has carved the surface of a tire to make her own stamp for imprinting the bricks - a rudimentary mechanization that she has also used to create prints on paper and fabric.
Less well-realized is a Jeep covered in camouflage-painted tortillas (i.e., paper "tortillas" are used in some spots and it looks as though they are filler for a shortfall of the real corn ones rather than an intentional statement), although it did prompt a former Mexican official to joke that this might be our new vehicle of choice for Iraq: "Then the Iraqis could eat the tortillas - but, of course, they'd be poisoned by the paint, so we'd be in trouble again!"
Most of the edgier works in this vein are installed at Blue Star, including an illuminated photo of a mutilated body, a segment of razor-wire topped fence stenciled with "US," and a symbol-heavy work that incorporates corporate logos stenciled on portraits of individuals like execution-style pistol targets. One of the most intriguing pieces in this vein does hang at the Instituto, a mixed-media tapestry entitled "Santa Muerte/Holy Death" by the richly allegorical Jiménez. On a wall-size, natural-toned canvas, a traditional calavera cradles the globe, enveloped in a rain of amber and aquamarine pacifiers stitched to the fabric.
The paintings of Alberto Ibañez, in a show in which the paintings were one of the weakest elements, are interesting, too. Although not so subtle as Jiménez, Ibañez' biting sense of irony coupled with a style that alludes to - but doesn't outright mimic - the slickness of advertising and animation is a powerful tool. In a chlorine-blue swimming pool, a Mickey Mouse outfitted with scuba gear bobs next to a woman's pale, curvaceous torso - "El Nacimiento de Venus/The Birth of Venus." In the more menacing "Sol re-naciente / Re-rising Sun," a boy who could be Asian as well as Mexican wears surgical gear while proffering a platter with a perky yellow (almond) M & M. The potential layered messages include allusions to a re-emergence of Aztec culture, the "Asian Tiger" economy of the early tech boom and the repercussions of job relocation, the ubiquitousness of American culture, or the promised back door into prosperity if only you're willing to do the dirty work for awhile.
Mexican Report has caused a flurry of e-mails among San Antonio art folks and some of their New York-relocated brethren, questioning claims that, "This is what is going on in Mexico at this time," and the like. Whether or not it can be billed as a comprehensive survey of contemporary Mexican art (with a country as large and diverse as Mexico, it probably cannnot), it raises issues on the collective minds of both countries, issues that shouldn't get lost among discussions of technique and medium. Blue Star and the Instituto have created a rich show with breadth and depth, and San Antonio is lucky to have first crack at interpreting its many messages. •
By Elaine Wolff