Mexico Now: Point of Departure

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through August 23

Arte Contemporaneo Jalisciense

at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, through September 6

By Fred Camper

In Yolanda Gutierrez’s Threshold, 25 groups of cow jawbones suspended from the ceiling, each group arranged to resemble a bird, look like a huge flock ascending–about to fly out the window. In Carlos Aguirre’s The Forest, dozens of hatchets precariously perched on thin rods stand together like trees, evoking an ancient army. Even Carlos Arias’s embroidered women have a sculptural vitality not common in embroidery. In general the 39 recent works by 13 Mexican artists–most of them in their 30s–at the Chicago Cultural Center are extraordinarily vivid. The formal restraint and balance, the self-awareness typical of much European art–even in the “anything goes” decades of the recent past–is oddly, sometimes humorously, violated here.

At least since the Renaissance self-awareness has played a key role in Western painting. Artists have acknowledged the artificiality of dukes’ and kings’ representations in portraits by including balconies or windows that echo the picture frame. The attempt to create an illusion is balanced by such self-referentiality; the tension between the two elements is crucial to a work’s impact. More recent conceptual art has its own analogues to older framing devices: with Duchamp’s readymades, for example, one doesn’t simply look at the urinal, one thinks about the meaning of signing a manufactured object and placing it in a gallery.

What makes these works powerful is their distinctive departure from Western art: rather than balancing artistic illusion with self-referential awareness, they’re constantly threatening to collapse into things themselves. Like toys coming to life in a toy shop, Gutierrez’s “birds” seem ready to fly away–but acknowledging their origin in cows seems far from the artist’s mind. Aguirre’s hatchets hint at an army ready for battle, but more immediately they look ready to start chopping. These artists embrace their materials or images so thoroughly that they threaten to overwhelm both artist and viewer, to become illogically, magically real.

Yishai Jusidman paints clowns–often their faces, sometimes on spheres. Though he only gives us the front of the head and distorts the faces, as in L.J. and J.L., stretching them to cover as much of the sphere as possible, both choices have the curious effect of making the faces more vivid, forcing the viewer to strain to see them. The fact that these spheres resemble human heads gives these explorations of perspective a surreal power. If the frame in traditional paintings is a metaphor for all the techniques by which an artwork acknowledges itself to be an artifact rather than an illusion, Jusidman’s headlike spheres lack that sense of enclosure; instead their stretched faces seem ready to explode.

This is also the case with his Yukio, Mamekazu, and Mamehiro, three egg-tempera-on-wood paintings from his geisha series. Almost completely white, these reveal only the faintest of figures, which seem to grow a bit more vivid as one steps back. Hovering in space, these gossamer illusions suggest mental images, as if there were no pigment at all on the wood’s surface. Rather than invading our space like Jusidman’s clown heads or leaping out like Aguirre’s hatchets, they float gently–but the effect is similar: the image escapes the material confines of the work.

Silvia Gruner’s Nature/Culture is full of frames–156 of them, to be exact, arranged on the wall in a 12-by-13 grid. Each contains a photo of a single object from nature or culture–dried fruit, a stone, a shoe, wire–against a white background, and each object is tied with a red ribbon, giving this apparently objective array a personal and performative quality. The work’s large size and the somewhat obsessive ribbons render the many small frames both perceptually and conceptually unimportant. Further, Gruner allows long objects to extend across several pictures, establishing that the things depicted are far more powerful than any limit on their depiction. Even more explicit is Melanie Smith’s aptly titled mixed-media assemblage Orange Lush I, cluttered with bright orange toilet seats, baby shoes, life vests, and other objects–as if the surface of a painting had suddenly erupted into the objects “represented.”

Nestor Qui–ones’s hermetic, almost mystical pieces stand a bit apart from the others. His wall-hung works combine painting, a few objects, and nylon mesh to create several layers of depth, the mesh sometimes partly obscuring the deeper layers. In The Healing a pale painted figure with a skull instead of a head and a hand floating near its arm is placed behind a mesh polygon. Nails driven into a metal pan support threads forming a kind of connect-the-dots pattern outlining another hand. Other enigmatic elements come together to suggest human labor and aspiration: the area above the figure is painted to resemble a starry sky, and the mesh polygon hints at a rocket ship. Qui–ones’s oblique symbols are typical of contemporary art, but the way the central figure seems ready to ascend–to exceed the work’s frame–is characteristic of this show’s distinctive aesthetic.

The 40 works from the 80s and 90s by 34 artists now at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum come from a museum in Guadalajara, capital of the state of Jalisco. Guadalajara, which was founded by the Spanish, has always been relatively conservative culturally, as I learned from Cesareo Moreno, visual arts director of the museum. And the work here is almost all painting, most of it figurative. Some of the pieces owe a debt to famous nationalist painters and muralists like Diego Rivera–an omnipresent legacy in Mexico from which many contemporary artists have struggled to escape. And the show is uneven in quality. But for all that, the strongest works have the same kind of frame-defying hyperrealism–not in appearance, which is fairly traditional, even derivative, but in effect–as Jusidman’s clowns and Aguirre’s hatchets.

Several paintings here clearly deny the self-containment of traditional pictures, introducing various excesses. Jose Fors’s The Dagger is a representational work showing the face of someone, presumably just stabbed, screaming at the viewer, drawing us into an unspecified drama. Miguel Angel Lopez Medina’s The Soriano Chocolate makes outrageous fauvist works, which it resembles, seem curiously controlled: a guitarist dwarfs the landscape, while the paint is applied so thickly that it sometimes destroys the picture’s illusion. Davis Birks’s On the Visceral Border–Landscape suggests a surreal history lesson. In this distant view of mountains behind a river valley, two giant, shadowy abstract heads loom above some hills in the foreground. Too large to be real sculptures, they may be cultural references, perhaps to the large Olmec stone heads of Mexico’s distant past. Other, smaller images–a man in a business suit, a group of Indians, some modern buildings–also suggest a history lesson in which all but the most ancient human elements are dwarfed by the land.

A few works here explicitly violate the idea of a frame. In Marcos Huerta’s The Mask, a painting of a bearded man in a bird mask, a painted red border provides a kind of internal frame, but the man’s body is also painted red and blends into the border, destroying the frame’s emphasis on the picture as an artifact separate from reality. Below the mask the man’s pointed beard and protruding tongue add a phallic aggression to the mask’s beak, giving the work a weirdly transgressive quality.

The use of a frame to undermine the meaning of frames is even clearer in Carlos Vargas Pons’s Ofelia: Homage to the Maestro Antoni Tapies. An oversize portrait of a man is surrounded by a bluish border containing brush strokes similar to those of Tapies, a famous abstract painter. The figure appears to be underwater, his eyes closed, his face streaked with watery light. His unruly black hair and the bubbles rising from his mouth in this melodramatic portrait seem to comment on the modernist restraint of the border’s expressionist brushwork. Pons seems to want to underline the transgressive elements of Tapies’s art–for example, the way the reds in his paintings sometimes stand for blood. Honoring as I do the intellectual intent of the modernists, their thought-provoking attempt to create paradoxes and balance formal elements, I find it hard to evaluate such works–beyond noting their disturbing, weirdly appealing power.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “The Mask” by Marcus Huerta; “Nature/Culture” By Silvia Gruner.