"Can one be an artist of his time and of his country when that country is Mexico? The answer to that question is not a matter of common agreement." Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet, critic and philosopher, wrote these words in 1983 about an exhibition by eight contemporary Mexican painters that took place in Madrid.
Fifteen years later, Mexico's artists say they are still searching for answers. But the best of them make art that transcends nationality and quietly suggests its geographic origin. This is what we see in "Mexico Now: Point of Departure," a touring show of 13 contemporary Mexico City artists that recently visited Chicago's Cultural Center.
Robert Stearns, who curated "Mexico Now," writes in the exhibition catalogue that the artists urged him "not to portray Mexican art through clichéd images that do not accurately represent artistic attitudes in Mexico now." He writes that the artists "appealed to us to grapple with their efforts to gain independence from the formal conventions of painting that have defined serious art in Mexico for many decades."
Stearns explains that the big four nationalist painters -- Rivera, Orozco, Tamayo and Siqueiros -- were not only skilled artists, but cultural heroes who "gave a voice to the new country's social, political, and spiritual order." Their presence is still overpowering today. Most people equate Mexican art with muralist style and imagery.
The artists in "Mexico Now" work very hard to vanquish the past. Of the 37 works in this show, just 12 can be considered paintings and not one is a mural. On the walls are the 12 paintings, eight mixed-media works, seven embroidered panels, two photomontages, and one polyptych. Three pieces hang from the ceiling, and on the floor are three free-standing works with electrical systems and one photo-video installation. We do not see one single image of a pyramid, mask, Chac-mool, bandoliered partisan, sombrero or chili pepper.
But have these artists simply exchanged one group of masters for another? A local critic thinks so. He accused them of lifting their ideas from European art magazines and complained that there was nothing distinctly "Mexican" about their work. The critic is mistaken.
Betsabée Romero ornaments wooden prayer rails and fire extinguishers with dried roses and rose stalks. The colors and flowers in her work bespeak the tropics, but there is also a religious dimension; roses symbolize the Virgin of Guadalupe. In 1531, Juan Diego, a Mexican peasant, had a vision of the Virgin Mary. When priests scoffed at his story, the Virgin gave him roses as proof of her appearance, and her image appeared inside his cloak.
Yolanda Gutiérrez makes art from organic materials. Threshold, a suspended installation of 28 sets of cow jawbones, simultaneously suggests soaring seabirds (life) and death (the bones). This wonderfully economical piece would work anywhere. Does it matter that a Mexican artist made it?
Threshold may be inspired by magnificent frigate birds that inhabit the coasts of Mexico, Texas and Florida. These wide-winged birds, which are known for their ability to hover motionless into the wind, were decimated in 1995 when hurricanes struck their nesting grounds in the Yucatan peninsula. Soon after this happened, Gutiérrez sought to erect structures in a Yucatan wildlife preserve that would facilitate nesting and help the birds recover.
Mónica Castillo shows Distributing Bread, a wall-hung color photomontage with loaves of bread in paper bags on the floor before it. The artist baked bread that was molded into the shape of her head, presented the loaves to friends, and photographed the encounters.
Castillo's friends are art world people -- upper middle class Mexicans with light complexions and Spanish features. Distributing Bread reminds us that more and more Mexicans live well nowadays instead of subsisting in misery like the peasants in Rivera's murals.
Melanie Smith's Orange Lush is pure, giggly fun -- an exuberant six-foot-high, hanging mixed-media collage of fluorescent orange balloons, tubing, pom poms and beach clothes combined with a plastic back-scratcher, life preserver, toilet bowl scrubber and much more. Orange Lush is one of several similar works that Smith once showed as a walk-through environment. She should have brought the whole thing to Chicago.
Orange Lush is one of the few pieces in this exhibition that cannot be connected to Mexico. The colors are artificial, not tropical. The medium is primarily plastic -- a US product. The artist was born in the United Kingdom and relocated to Mexico City at the age of 24.
You can be an artist of your time and of your country when that country is Mexico. Mexico's best contemporary artists live in the present -- a very different time from the muralist era. It is we, not they, who have some catching up to do.
"Loose" Painting, "Tight" Structures
Four artists recently had important shows in Chicago. Dan Gamble and Ben Dallas exhibited at the Cultural Center. Gina Hartig-Williams showed a remarkable wall and floor sculpture at the Jan Cicero Gallery and Patrick Dougherty constructed a large tree sapling piece on the grounds of the Evanston Art Center.
Dan Gamble asks whether "loose" painting and "tight" gridded structures can co-exist on the same plane. His solution, he says, is a "series of contrasts -- order versus primordial chaos." Gamble's paintings show dense geometric forms floating against an atmospheric field or ambiguous landscape. His structures suggest architecture, plant parts, rib cages, and even a crown of thorns. The backgrounds may be "primordial chaos," as he says, but I see smoke and clouds.
Whatever its literal meaning may be, this work is a painterly tour de force. Gamble thinks clearly and draws precisely. He knows just what he wants to do and controls his process completely. He mixes and layers dark colors and glazes to give his images life, surface activity and a gratifying complexity.
Wedges and Arches
Ben Dallas, a deliberate, craftsman-like artist, makes painted wedge-shaped and arch-like wooden constructions that hang on the wall. Using subdued acrylic colors, wax, glaze, pencil and incising, he creates surfaces that suggest high contrast photography. The four arches of Four Is measure just eight inches tall. Some of his other wedges measure four feet from top to bottom. At either scale, Dallas' forms neatly protrude from the blank white wall.
Two to One is a pair of wedges with a piece cut from the center of each, The remaining material is uneven in length, but the works are still tidy and exact. The colored surfaces are at once active and contemplative. In Slant, Dallas hangs seven small wedges on the wall with the thick end at the bottom to suggest falling rain or fruit on a tree. Then he covers the surfaces with painted circular purple forms in a smoky background. The work looks like it was made a very long time ago.
Iteration and Chaos
Inspired by mathematical theory, Gina Hartig-Williams makes art of invigorating freshness. This sculptor knows her craft -- and history and science.
Scattered Iterations is a wall and floor construction made of steel, resin and found images. A flower-like object made from an unfinished steel rod and tube hangs on the wall. At the ends of its "stems" are small colored squares that suggest seeds. Elsewhere on the wall and on the floor we see scattered components of the piece. It looks like the wind came along and disintegrated a dandelion's fluffy seeds.
Scattered Iterations "brings iterative construction into the third dimension," the artist says. She bases the form of this piece on iterations of the number four -- 4 x 4 =16 x 4 =64, etc. -- but "chaos enters this process and scatters it."
Information Translocation, a closely related work, is more explicitly tied to history. Hanging on the wall of a public library, this piece looks like the pages of an opened book. Here again, the artist welds steel rod and tubing into a complex series of rods with small squares at the ends. Resin blocks in the squares contain images from China, the Aztecs, the Hebrew scriptures, and ancient Egypt and Greece. Information Translocation "illustrates the process of developing information into a language," says Hartig-Williams.
In the hands of a lesser artist, such formal work could become dull. But these sculptures embody the irregularity and accident that Hartig-Williams sees in nature, which gives them a sense of vibrancy.
Patrick Dougherty is "one of the most audacious and stimulating sculptors working today." His work exists "somewhere between traditional sculpture and landscape architecture." These are the words of Michele Rowe-Shields, Director of the Evanston Arts Center where Dougherty was commissioned to make an outdoor structure from tree saplings.
Since 1983, Dougherty has created more than 100 site-specific works for galleries and museums in North America, Europe, and Asia. According to Rowe-Shields, he uses "only his hands and clippers to weave the saplings together." His process allows for chance to "influence the final form," she states.
In Nature's Sway, Dougherty's Evanston piece, is 18 feet tall, 25 feet long, and 16 feet wide. There are four vessel-shaped structures of willow and gray dogwood saplings with large openings at ground level, inviting the viewer to enter and explore. Inside, the sky shows through windows and holes in the top of the structures.
In Nature's Sway suggests shelters, primitive granaries and the human form. The piece seems African, or at least tropical, since a sapling shelter would be of little use in a cold climate. Leaning and bending, the structures seem to be in conversation with each other.
Dougherty uses his simple materials to create a wonderful interplay of line in three dimensions. The saplings sweep around the surface of the pieces, then disappear inside. As in nature, nothing is perfectly straight or regular. The only complaint about the work is that we had to wait so many years to see it.
VICTOR M. CASSIDY is ArtNet's Chicago correspondent.