"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.