New York City seems to have a Mexican art thing going on, which is curious, considering how far away we are from San Diego and Los Angeles. Of three big summer exhibitions, the most interesting and important is the gritty show of Mexican contemporary art organized for P.S.1 by chief curator Klaus Biesenbach. More reserved and market-based is the survey of contemporary art bought for the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection by its director, Robert Littman, on view at Sotheby's on York Avenue. And a completely different kettle of fish is "Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art from the Collection of Fomento Cultural Banamex," a touring show of high-end tourist art, now at the National Museum of American Indian in Battery Park.
P.S. 1 boasts the most energized curatorial program in New York right now, as is exemplified by Biesenbach's "Mexico City: An Exhibition about the Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values," June 30-Sept. 30, 2002. Despite its unwieldy title, this focused exhibition of works by about 20 artists has a pronounced curatorial point of view. Like the Oscar-nominated Mexican dog-fighting film Amores Perros by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, which was recently released in New York, the artworks here embrace a kind of esthetic of brutality that derives very clearly from economic deprivation.
Thus, the opening images for "Mexico City" are several large, gray aerial photographs of the city by Melanie Smith, showing a densely packed, ramshackle metropolis, apparently stretching for miles without cease. Brutality is a keynote, whether seen in Ivan Edeza's found-footage video that seems to show safari-costumed riflemen in helicopters hunting Indian tribesmen in the jungle, or in Miguel Calderón and Yoshua Okon's 1994 videotape that supposedly documents the two young artists stealing 120 car stereos -- which sit in a stack in the gallery.
Other works demonstrate the economic extremes of the Mexican economy. Daniela Rossell's color photographs of wealthy Mexican women in their kitschly appointed homes illustrate the astonishing levels of vulgarity that excess capital can achieve. In a nearby gallery, a slideshow by Francis Alÿs called Ambulantes (Pushing and Pulling) shows a series of photos of vendors dragging their absurdly overburdened carts through Mexico City streets, a pathetic document of an unofficial economy of poverty.
The show also includes works by Santiago Sierra, the Mexico-based Spanish artist who participates in the exploitation of manual workers and illegal aliens in his art (in one case, paying unemployed Cuban teens to have their backs tattooed in a horizontal line). For two weeks at the beginning of July, down at Deitch Projects in SoHo, Sierra had temporary workers engaged in aimless hard labor, in this case holding up large wooden beams. "It's like life," said one of the laborers, when asked to comment on the job.
It's no accident that such an esthetic of brutality should emerge from Mexico, where a decade-long process of privatization has brought riches to some but poverty and unemployment to many more. This new Mexican art stands in distinct contrast to Arte Povera, whose embrace of humble materials like piles of rags and slabs of stone now seems entirely formal and almost effete, and to the antisocial efforts of the yBa movement, which is narcissistic and decadent in its affronts to English convention.
Up at Sotheby's, the usually rapid-fire progression of auctions has slowed a bit for the summer, and the house has turned its spacious 10th-floor galleries over to Robert Littman, who runs the Vergel Foundation, which is based in New York and Mexico City and is charged with administering the collection of the late Mexican art patrons Jacques and Natasha Gelman. Fees from the touring show of the Gelman's Mexican masterpieces, currently on view at El Museo del Barrio, extended through Sept. 8, 2002 -- in the "five figures," said Littman, noncommittally -- have enabled certain purchases of contemporary Mexican art, some 60 examples of which are now on show (though not on sale) at Sotheby's, July 8-30, 2002.
The selection is something of a grab bag, and suggests the behind-the-scenes market effect of the foundation's acquisitions. These range from works by more familiar New York gallery stars like Gabriel Orozco, who shows with Marian Goodman, and Miguel Calderón, who exhibits with Andrea Rosen. In any case, it's great to see Calderon's outrageous 1995-96 photos of model tourist landscapes set against the "landscape" of his testicles (the "Greetings from My Hairy Nuts" series) and darkly comic images of a wooly headed Neanderthal about to execute a zebra and other rare wildlife.
The show includes watercolors copied from photos in Artforum by Marco Arce (seen previously at Galeria Ramis Barquet) along with a distastefully large screen of hair cuttings made in 1993 by Silvia Gruner and ingenious, folkish carved wood reliefs of masks and faces from 1991 by Germán Venegas. Out in the entrance foyer are a couple of homoerotic works. A short video loop from 1995 by Thomas Glassford shows two men in a hesitant but passionate kiss -- or is it a single man with a mirror, teasing the viewer with a narcissistic exercise? Nearby are several large unframed color photos by Javier de la Garza that bring a blurry suggestiveness to a subject that is usually handled more aggressively.
Downtown at the Battery, the Museum of the American Indian has opened a touring show of some 300 works by 181 artists called "Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art from the Collection of Fomento Cultural Banamex," July 21, 2002-Mar. 15, 2003. From the evidence here, the collecting program of Mexico's largest bank has allowed dozens of Mexican artisans to make unusually large and elaborate showpieces. The result is a broad selection of crafts and folk artifacts that are professionally made and seem quite marketable, though sadly lacking in the kind of authenticity and charm that make more modest folk efforts so desirable. It's an odd outcome for what is certainly a progressive effort.
Some strangeness remains in the show, however. There are skeleton piñatas and decorated skulls of sugar, a Christ figure made of corncobs and a painted clay Aztec Nativity made in 1996 by Zenón Martínez García. Strangest of all, though is a group of clay figures of Frida Kahlo made in 1997 by the Oaxaca artist Guillermina Aguilar Alcántara. Its Frida, Frida all the time here.
* * *
While we're on the subject of Sotheby's non-auction-related exhibitions, let's mention the small gallery show of photographs by Melissa Auf der Maur, the former bassist with the rock groups Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins, and Yelena Yemchuk, a rock photojournalist who has also done album covers and promotional work. Both young women are accomplished photographers, though apparently with limited experience in the professional art world (all of the photos, which can be purchased at prices from $500 to $2,000, are owned by the photographers themselves).
Their subject matter is largely their own lives on the rock-star tour. Both present pictures of stadiums full of fervid fans, views out airplane windows and down vacant hotel hallways. Auf der Mar uses color, and often takes remote-control self-portraits of herself in performance. Her sensibility is fairly upbeat, as demonstrated by a grid of nine images of avid fans titled The Kids Are Alright, U.S.A.
Yemchuk, who makes black-and-white prints, has a slightly darker and more melodramatic sensibility. Thus, there are images of disturbed-looking rock stars -- Courtney Love, Billy Corrigan, Marilyn Manson -- and abject situations, like a shot of a girl's feet wearing only one shoe in a dirty outdoor toilet. In contrast, Yemchuk is also drawn to the rock picturesque, with pictures of a white horse in a field by the road and a brooding figure (that looks like the bald Corrigan) posing by a stormy sea.
All this material is drenched in fashion and glamour, and it's the dumb photo collector who doesn't whip out his checkbook and buy the whole lot.
* * *
And while we're on the subject of P.S. 1, it's worth mentioning that the place is just about the only venue for contemporary art that stays open in the summer on both Saturday and Sunday. In addition to the Mexican art show, the place has everything from a children's wading pool and Saturday afternoon rock performances to "Painting Report: Plane: The Essential of Painting," which includes an impressive selection of mural-sized recent works by Al Held, who builds up the picture plane from hundreds of 3D tesserae, and Fabian Marcaccio, who pretends to unravel the very substance of the painting surface.
Also on view is a large gallery featuring seven Minimalist, conceptualist works by the contemporary Greek artist George Hadjimichalis, organized by P.S. 1 director Alanna Heiss, and several studio rooms with installations by individual artists. One standout is a room by Sol Sax that includes a kind of "endless column" constructed out of the blue jeans, several shamanistic headdresses made of shredded jeans, and a videotape of the indefatigable artist acting out in the same costume.
* * *
Several good shows opened uptown in Harlem last week, all on the same day. At the Studio Museum in Harlem is a traveling show called "Beauford Delaney: The Color Yellow," July 10-Sept. 15, 2002. Delaney (1901-79) led a celebrated bohemian life, living first in Greenwich Village from 1929 to '53 (where he was heralded in an enthusiastic chapbook published in 1945 by Henry Miller), and then in Paris and, with his friend and acolyte James Baldwin, on the French Riviera.
This exhibition, organized by the High Museum in Atlanta and slated subsequently to appear in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, features late works that use the color yellow, which Delaney thought represented "light, healing and redemption." He made both allover abstractions and portraits. The latter are especially good, telling but folkish renderings of people like Baldwin, Marian Anderson and art historian Richard A. Long that seem saturated with a brilliant yellow-colored light.
Also on view uptown at The Project on West 126th Street is an installation by the notorious William Pope.L, a small room whose outer wall is painted red with a sentence in yellow in which the artist makes reference to both "my mother's penis" and his father's awakening covered with vomit and spilled beer. Inside, after entering through a tiny, Alice-in-Wonderland-sized door, are several stuffed animals covered with peanut butter and hung on the wall. Among so many artists today who are expected, one way or another, to make sense, Pope.L seems to be the exception who is allowed to exist "in his own world," and even relished as someone who does.
Down the road at Triple Candie is an installation of three video projections, called "Triple Theater," including Bruce Nauman's single-channel, 51-minute video from 1968, Flesh to White to Black to Flesh. Inordinately slow and even meditative by today's standards -- the artist may in fact have covered his shirtless torso first with white and then with black makeup, but during the 10 minutes your correspondent was on hand Nauman was shown sitting unremarkably in a chair -- the video is overwhelmingly of interest today due to its stature as an art-historical relic, to adopt a phase used by the San Francisco critic Mark van Proyen. Wasn't it great, back in those originary days of black-and-white process and body-art video?
* * *
Don't miss "Dream Garden," an installation at Deitch Projects by Julia Chiang and Ryan McGinness, June 29-July 27, 2002. Especially good is the small gallery by Chiang, planted with real grass and dotted with steppingstones, in which wacky urban sophisticates can be seen taking care to avoid stepping on the fragile greenery.
Bargains galore are available at the retrospective of posters, postcards and other multiples by Postmodernist Feminist Conceptualist Jenny Holzer that opened on July 18 at Printed Matter. Postcards made of thin wood paneling and imprinted with red maxims, favorites like "money creates taste" and "private property created crime," are available for a mere $5. And yes, they can be sent through the mail, for 60 cents postage.
No report as yet on David LaChapelle's show at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in SoHo, called "All American" and opening July 16-Sept. 21, 2002. LaChapelle's fans swamped the opening, and our reporters were too inhibited to find their way inside. A view through the window, however, indicates that the flamboyantly Baroque fashion photographer has taken his prints up a notch, printing them at large scale.
* * *
Congratulations to the American Folk Art Museum, which has opened a second installation at its new 53rd Street headquarters, which unfortunately languishes behind the construction sheds erected for work on its much larger next door neighbor, the Museum of Modern Art. Dubbed "American Anthem," July 11, 2002-Jan. 5, 2003, the show is jointly organized by Stacey Hollander and Brooke Davis Anderson, and places the collection in a linear progression from the colonial era to the present -- shades of Alfred Barr and the advance of American modernism at the Museum of Modern Art!
As Anderson noted, the collecting imperatives of the museum have changed over the years, with most of the 19th-century material originating in rural New England, while more recent acquisitions have focused on Outsider Art, much of it from the South. An entire wall in the new installation is given over to works from the mid-20th-century by African American folk artists.
The boutique spaces of the new museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, have come in for a certain amount of negative criticism. In fact, the museum's use of its stairwells and central atrium for displays of duck decoys, fishing lures and an impressive collection of weather vanes is a nice, almost suburban touch.
* * *
Jay Grimm, who has operated an adventurous if small storefront gallery on West 28th Street in Chelsea for several years (recently closing a show of abstract paintings on gessoed jute by artist and Art in America critic Joe Fyfe), is taking over the contemporary department of James Graham & Sons. The 28th Street gallery will stay open, too, for the immediate future. Grimm takes over for Valerie McKenzie, who leaves Graham to open her own gallery in the (relatively) new gallery building at 511 West 25th Street. She's taking some Graham artists with her, word is.
The Museum of Modern Art, by the way, will probably earn $20 million or so from fees for lending its collection while it builds a new museum facility, as alleged by Guggenheim Museum director Thomas Krens in the New York Times recently -- a Berlin newspaper recently reported that the Neue Nationalgalerie there is paying $8 million for a MOMA masterworks show next year. The show is also going to Houston, and it's probably not a coincidence that the two venues are both in well-heeled cities.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.