Nahum B. Zenil, a 50-year-old native of Mexico's Gulf coast state of Veracruz, is now regarded as one of Mexico's most important contemporary artists. In the U.S. his formidable reputation has tended to precede the work itself, which has been infrequently shown here, except for an appearance in L.A. and two New York exhibitions at Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art some years ago. In this exhibition, titled "Witness to the Self" -- a version of a show which debuted at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco -- curators Edward Sullivan of NYU and Clayton C. Kirking of Parsons brought together some 60 paintings, works on paper and constructions Zenil has produced over the past 20 years. The work more than lives up to the advance word-of-mouth, and the exhibition effectively brings New York audiences up to date with the artist.
Zenil himself is the protagonist in these narratives, which are influenced by Catholic imagery, the Mexican muralists and especially the work of Frida Kahlo. His emotionless but not unsympathetic face, usually bearded or with a mustache, and his often nude body appear again and again in the work. The artist exposes himself in more ways than one, and he pictures himself in the most extraordinary circumstances: his body eaten through by worms, used as a target for dart throwing, or flying alongside his winged lover over New York City skyscrapers. His meticulous technique and quasi-surrealist imagery often recall paintings by Frida Kahlo and, in fact, she appears in many works as Zenil's sort of soul sister.
One minor disappointment was the exhibition's lack of examples of the early abstract works that Zenil showed in Mexico in the `70s, which would have helped to understand the artist's evolution. Nevertheless, this is a show not to be missed, and it is certain to be one of the most talked about of the new season.
For more Zenil online, check out the fall edition of Queer Arts Resource beginning Sept. 27, which spotlights the artist.