Los Tres Grandes
The Mexican mural movement (b. 1922-d. ca. 1975) is a 20th century anomaly. Modernist paintings are mostly personal expressions and many are abstract or semi-abstract. Mexican murals are huge figurative creations, displayed in public places and intended to advance a left political agenda. The artists themselves were political activists. Jailed several times for his revolutionary activities, David Alfaro Siqueiros once mounted an attempt on Leon Trotsky's life.
The Mexican muralists profoundly influenced Latin American art in their day and after. Siqueiros is widely imitated. There are many murals by Latino painters in Chicago neighborhoods.
All this makes a Mexican muralist exhibition important, especially in Chicago, which has the nation's largest Mexican-American community. Until Sept. 1, the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (MFACM) is presenting "Los Tres Grandes" (The Big Three), a show of Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.
The MFACM obtained this art from the Museo de Arte Carillo Gil in Mexico City. This museum was founded by Alvaro Carillo Gil, a Mexican physician who started collecting art in 1938. In 1972, Carillo Gil gave his collection and the building that housed it to the Mexican people. The museum bearing his name opened two years later. Today it owns 1,581 contemporary works by Mexican and overseas artists.
Armando Saenz Carrillo of the Museo Carillo Gil curated this show. "The art world knows the monumental public works of these three great Mexican masters," he writes. This exhibition provides "a glimpse at their early studio work," suggesting the "passion and dedication that would later go into creating the Mexican muralist movement."
This is not a bad idea for a show in Mexico City, where people see murals by Los Tres Grandes everyday. But Chicago cannot be expected to know this art or to have seen it in situ. Saenz Carillo should have selected the art consistently (we only get "early studio work" from Rivera) and should have provided text and imagery to connect the work in this show to the murals of Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco. As it is, "Los Tres Grandes" is a lazy, unbalanced and puzzling show.
The Riveras we see are Cézannesque pencil portraits dated from 1918 to 1921 when the artist lived mostly in Paris. We also see two Cubist oils, which were painted between 1914 and 1917 when Rivera knew Picasso and showed with the Cubists. None of this apprentice work displays unusual "passion and dedication" nor does it connect in any obvious way to the murals that were to come.
From Orozco we get five satirical portraits on paper, which are said to be influenced by Posada, but look more like something that Daumier would have done. In a second room are six miscellaneous paintings and four sketches for ballet designs, all produced during the early '40s. Only one of these -- Prometo (Prometheus, 1944) connects clearly to an Orozco mural. The best painting depicts cabbages and the oddest is La Victoria (1944), in which an awesomely obese nude exults over a military triumph. We never learn how La Victoria vanquished her enemies. Maybe she sat on them.
Siqueiros contributes two pencil drawings (1950, 1956) that could be preparatory sketches for murals, and ten paintings dated from 1945 to 1952. This dynamic work, from the peak of Siqueiros' career, simply blows everything else away. Siqueiros, an incisive draftsman, bases his compositions on circles and ellipses and creates a powerful illusion of three dimensions. In his Portrait of Carmen Carillo Gil, the subject sits in a round-backed chair with her arms and hips wonderfully defined. Her blonde hair is positively electric.
"The Summer Show," which ran at Gallery 312 from June 28 to Aug. 3, featured work by 15 emerging artists -- photography, painting, video, sculpture, drawing, performance and mixed media.
Lisa Caccioppoli's The Inverse is a banner-like installation of carved and brightly painted Styrofoam blocks held together with thread. "I have 5,200 blocks, which I assemble into site-specific pieces," the artist explains. "This one is the inverse of the rainbow."
Caccioppoli's patterns derive from her interest in rhythm, systems and personal interpretation. "Our human-made systems are pulsing and repetitive," she says. Calendars are rhythmic. Math is rhythmic. Typing is rhythmic."
Inside Paintings, Rafael Vera's colorful room-sized installation, bubbles with geometric activity. "My work brings a new approach to the age-old painting challenges of figure/ground, positive/negative and push/pull relationships," the artist says. "When does architecture become painting? When does painting become sculpture? When does sculpture become architecture? I am interested in where these disciplines overlap."
Last fall, Jane Crichtlow went kayaking on the north branch of the Chicago River. She was photographing foliage when a current capsized her boat, nearly drowning her. She remains fascinated with water, but fearful too. Silent Service is a series of staged underwater photographs that grow from these experiences and her interest in the U.S.S. Diablo submarine.
James Casebere also makes staged underwater photographs, but Crichtlow's work is darker and far less mannered. Her images suggest the quiet menace of undersea weaponry and the claustrophobia that many feel in submarines.
We were quite taken with two untitled oil paintings by Soohee Shin in the summer group show at Perimeter Gallery. Educated in Seoul and Paris, this artist has shown in Korea and Europe. As far as we know, this is her Chicago debut.
Shin's paintings are layered fields of horizontal marks in subdued organic colors. Her scenes -- one is predominantly blue, the other green -- suggest sunlight and clouds reflected on rippling water. Shin anchors her Monet-like images with vertical brushstrokes that recall rushes or other water plants and a strong vertical form that could be a tree. In each painting, we see a mysterious leaf-like shape.
Shin's work is a species of nature-based calligraphy. She is a maker of marks who knows just when to stop. Sometimes she makes just one brush stroke in a certain color, but it's all she needs.
The Earth from Above
"The Earth from Above," an outdoor exhibition of 121 4 x 6 ft. color photographs by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, is up in Chicago's Millennium Park until Sept. 15. "The Earth from Above" has visited 15 countries over the past three years. Chicago is hosting the U.S. debut.
Arthus-Bertrand took these photographs from a helicopter at altitudes ranging from 100 to 10,000 ft. Since 1990, he has logged more than 3,000 hours of flying time in 100 countries. Arthus-Bertrand wants to make a photographic inventory of significant ecosystems as they exist today and to show humanity's problematic impact on the earth.
The photographer explains that Heart in Voh shows a mangrove swamp in French New Caledonia, a group of Pacific islands. This "amphibious tree formation" is "common to tropical and subtropical coastlines," he writes, "arising on salt flats exposed to fluctuating tides." It consists of mangroves and halophytic plants, which only survive in salty soils.
Such swamps cover roughly 65,000 square miles on the earth's surface. At certain spots in the interior, which sea water does not reach except at high tides, vegetation "gives way to bare, oversalted stretches called tannes," such as this heart-shaped clearing near Voh. These fragile ecosystems are under constant pressure, says Arthus-Bertrand, from overexploitation of natural resources, coastline urbanization, pollution and more.