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Apropiations: Figure, Space, and Perception in some Mexican Artists of the Nineties

Rita Eder and Silvia Pandolfi

Curatorial essay for the catalog

The return to painting, at the beginning of the eighties, marked the end of a radical period in the arts that questioned its materials, styles, support, spaces, and attempted to change the roles traditionally assigned to the artist, the public and the critics.

The last stage of a dynamic modernity, still confident of its future and encouraged by the extreme imagination of the artistic avant-garde of the sixties, rethought the world through its art. Its foundations and strategies were directed at the utopia of utopias: the invention of lifestyles governed by creativity in pursuit of an imaginative evolution that would transform society. In these circumstances, painting, its prestige and place still untouched since the Renaissance, had been called into question for its proclivity to turn into a commodity and its incapacity to function within the aspirations of the last avant-garde.

However, to many artists the eighties meant, beyond the struggle between the dematerialization of art and the market, what Thomas McEvilley called the return from exile. Some painters only fifteen years earlier, facing the condemnation of their profession, experienced confusion and a feeling of having been expelled from the artistic world. This crisis triggered a new meditation on painting that broke with the idea of abstraction as a point of arrival and resistance to another end of history in the arts.

A question that stands out in the restitution of painting is a change in critical terminology: »influence«, that action which infects, provokes or guides the creation or reception of a work of art is replaced by the word »appropriation«. In The Archeology of knowledge Michel Foucault refers to the concept of influence as belonging to a constellation of terms, which, although it may seem poor from a theoretical point of view, affirms and maintains the continuity and integrity of history, tradition and discourse. Influence, as an idea, provides transmission and communication with an almost magical support. Both would seem to refer to a purely casual and passive process devoid of similarities and repetitions. On the other hand, the term appropriation favors a type of discourse which reveals its origins but recombines its meanings, and in this process introduces an instability that propitiates a new understanding beyond critical ambivalence and gives back to painting the legitimacy to construct a view of the world.

From this process arises the tendency to introduce visual codes, objects and images understood under new suppositions. The return to the figurative, for example, indeed contains that sensation of instability. The body upside-down, ambivalent, tortured, banalized, sexualized, announces its new meanings and introduces the debate on the concept of humanity or human nature. On the other hand, the resistance to certain modern dogmas and the desire for another mysticism has accentuated the re-codification of religious ideas and released a flow of emotions and iconographic resources. Post-minimalism, paradoxically, is a testimony to the reconsideration of purely visual language above rhetoric and the analysis of the work of art as if it were a text of interpretation and meaning. The relations of painting to drawing, engraving, cinema, photography and publicity border on the subjective processes of perception and the meaning of the image already seen so as to question problems of representation.

Indeed, we are in the age of restructuring that which has already been seen and felt. Perhaps, as Duchamp predicted, one must impose a sense of delay on the accelerated rhythm of the modernisms. To newly look and discover what is revealed in absence, which proposition shines once in the darkness, what is the secret of contemporary imagination that extracts from nothingness and aridity a restructuring of the meanings of creation that fills the hostile, violent, plundered world with significance as it ends the millennium.

The Mexico of the nineties, a decade of great changes and new crises, has produced noteworthy cultural ferment. Not only is it necessary to point out diversities but also a multiplication of identities that have given the visual arts today a cosmopolitan quality and an energy that finds its parallel in the gradual differentiation of cultural animators, in the increase of curatorial visions and new audiences, in diversification of the market, of spaces for exhibition and in the behavior of cultural policies that favor a more plural and current vision of Mexican art. As a counterpart, there are also, anarchic growths, non-functional institutions, museums without collections, artists without talent, a market that supplies new exoticisms and sells fakes, unconscious audiences that do not understand any more than their own dilemmas of fashion and prestige.

The magnificent truths, the celebration and apotheosis of art, the limits and definitions, are ineffective discourses. The approach to visual-artistic creation in our medium can be understood as a wide range of problems that invite diverse appraisals. In this sense, for example, gender and body may be considered a search for identification between the artistic proposition and the material or matter, that constitute the body itself; a visceral fixation that ritually explores the body as a series of processes that open other realities. Gender as a method and a way of seeing has favored the rethinking of sexuality in images and their connotations. It has also initiated a new way of understanding the relations between ethnic groups and social classes fundamental to the narrative tradition in Mexican painting.

Other noteworthy approaches are the interactions with a Mexicanism that reproduces in its imaginarium a mystification of shared formal qualities and identities. Undoubtedly, this is an important subject that concerns the tradition of Mexican art in the 20th century and its determination to find a language different from the vanguards that resort to representation and the reinvention of narrative. Contrary to heroic languages and according to the indifference and perhaps disparagement of originality (another term expelled from current debate), arise the copy, the object of tastelessness: heroes, movie stars, singers or revolutionaries of the popular imagination, variations of Juan Helguera's calendars, the obsessively repeated features of Frida Kahlo and the fetishism of her clothing.

Another approach is the interiorization of the urban, which for some time was more a desire and a declaration of principles, in the end, a way of integrating oneself into the invention of modernity. Today the infernal aspects of the city (pollution, overpopulation, violence) coexist with aspects of the traditional world, with historical monuments, ways of working and surviving, popular architecture and the kitsch of commerce set in the historic center of Mexico City. This environment in which some artists actually live, has not directly inspired their work but has been a source of urban metaphors.

Alongside these other proposals may be observed a rationality and an emphasis on perception which have not been frequent in Mexican art. There is something cool and intellectual about the sensitivity of some young artists that resort to irony, the explorations of visual sensations, the construction of meanings based on a resistance to established tradition, to its narratives, its icons and successful formulas. There is also the decision to explore a more international language, destroying cliches of frozen or established cultural identities and manuals of wasted symbols.

The Mexican artists assembled for Five Continents and a City represent aspects of the broad spectrum outlined above.

Francis Alys. An artist of Belgian origin, he has lived in Mexico for a decade. His finesse in finding paradoxes and the irony that guides his de-structuring of certain axioms over the authenticity or falseness of objects or artistic acts, has led him to a curious exchange of styles and themes with billboard painters to the point of eliminating the importance of who did what. Alys seems rooted in his apartment, in an enclave of the historic center of Mexico City, overlooking tree-lined Santa Catarina Plaza. Dark and intelligent eyes behind glasses; tall and thin, with a long, fine nose, he bears a noticeable and curious physical resemblance to Hugo Ball, founder of Dadaism, though perhaps without the existential and religious torment. Alys, intellectual and lucid, is closer to Marcel Duchamp in the elimination of artistic pathos, in the encounter with intelligent metaphors for the neutralization of the artistic process and a preference for life. He traverses geography and incorporates signs of urban culture, with a grain of salt and subtlety. Through video, painting, installations and performance, he comments on the attitudes, zeal and blunders of a dying artistic tradition with the irony of his organizational paradigms and his formal parables.

Franco Aceves Humana. The canvas, regardless of its size, is a vast field of refined yet impertinent elements of everyday life. That which is object related falls apart in his wake, his perfumes, his footprints. The painter sees emulsions, smells, forms of physical state which hang suspended in the painting’s environment that proceeds by negation. The weight of matter is based only on its most essential components. Things float regardless of gravity, only a circulation of cells, sperms and particles. Weight and lightness are the contrary elements that seem to interest him. His lines traverse elaborately worked material establishing a playful climate of delicate imbalances threatened by irony and, beyond, decomposition. A painter of urban everyday life, he produces images of an interiorized industrialism, particles of gasoline, drawings of speedways through the city. His painting shows a receptivity to the fantastic in everyday life; there a rock sits on a floating chair; a margay is the silhouette of the city’s peripheral speedway.

Néstor Quiñones. La Quiñonera, once a place to meet and party, famous among the neighbors, boasting a mythical name and frequented by artists in the late eighties, is empty. Piled on the floor are reconsiderations of Nestor Quiñones' calaveras. But there are other things too, a bunch of objects and forms, the whiteness and geometry of which order perception, apparently white squares with a solid background and transparent surfaces. Between base and cover, organic elements are transformed in the eye of the observer or mediated by a transparent circular layer that functions as a magnifier or lens, bringing the elements closer and disarraying them. It is again the image of the calavera rethought, we penetrate the internal structure of the material, this time conceived from the point of view of perception and its processes.

Gerardo Suter. Photography and its development since the seventies in Mexico, given its capacity for experimentation in new forms, supports, technical resources, media and subjects, has encouraged new thinking on the visual arts as well as interdependence and invasion of diverse expressive media. Gerardo Suter is a good example of this, inasmuch as he combines poetic sensitivity with command of technical resources. He knows the constituents of photography and, like a modern alchemist, has reflected upon photographic substances. His attitude toward photography sets out from the exploration of light as the creator of images. Light is illumination, tone, graduation, but also mood, mysticism and body, ritual and illusion. Suter possesses the curiosity of the scientist to make a photograph that comments on the extension of its physical properties and its deconstruction transformed into visual proposals. It is this that has taken him to such other fields of art as installation, video and sculpture. The proposal for Five Continents and a City is a reflection upon how to grasp an image beyond the camera and closer to the substance of painting. It is the counterpoint between the fugitive and the permanent, its traces and instabilities or variant relations between painting and photography.

Jan Hendrix. Landscapes command his attention. A wayfarer in many lands, Hendrix puts together visions: beaches, seas, volcanoes, storms, et caetera. He recomposes images seeking reflection upon visual sensations. He sets up sequences and series as if he were drawing in motion as if, like the camera, he were catching variations in light and the relief of forms. The frame is a window that he cuts out and sets off by the other frame, drawn, painted or simply white and empty. It is an approach to the conceptualization of the border, the limit of spatial qualities. A migrant, a nomad, he leaves the imprint of his passages, travels, explorations. He lets himself be impregnated by the design, refinement and poetic impact of Chinese painting. It makes little sense to seek orientalism in Hendrix, rather has he imbibed vistas of lowlands and flatlands permeated with reflections of water and contrasting light, thanks to the cloudiness of their skies. From his rich pictorial tradition, he peruses and reviews other ways of conceiving the meaning of nature, its tones, its fragrances and the caprices of its forms.

Jorge Rocha. Contrary to the tendency toward minimalism and reflections upon the perceptual visible in new works of recent generations, Rocha is an entirely figurative painter and a colorist who takes pleasure in excesses of roses, reds, yellows, royal blue and bottle green. The cityscapes in which he inserts his characters, compete with his suggestive architectural references. His painting bears a heavy psychological burden. The canvas always includes fleshly feminine figures, invested with power, who inhabit the city and its spaces on diverse planes and from various angles. Their stridence, the amplitude of these figures and their possible relation to a kind of expressionism, defining an art ordered by composition and geometry that frame a scene sentimentally linked to the experience of the city. There is a redefinition of the expressive and a tension that restrains the figures and balances them in space. Via the color and form of the women that often resemble great dolls, there are vestigial suggestions of popular art applied to intimist scenes, rarified by their insertion into urban space.

Mónica Castillo. Lately in discussions of the work process, subjectivity has taken on particular importance. Whence or how is an object or reflection construed, from what place does an artist manifest himself? Gender studies and painting by women have changed the way the constitution of the object is seen and have placed the presence of the subject at the center of debate. In the self-portraits Castillo interweaves, her features, bone structure and hair, and remakes the object in the measure that she redefines herself. Far removed from the idealized neoclassical or romantic self-portrait or the intensity of expressionism that attempted to reveal the virtues and the character of the artist and his or her pathos while manifesting elements of a style and an aesthetic, Mónica Castillo employs irony based on an image remotely rooted in diverse elements of surrealism and pop art which, through a mannequin or comic, conceive new form that countervail the idealized feminine. Her tapestries, paintings and objects, ironies of the self-portrait, are ways of affirming or limning the presence of what is her own in her paintings, while at the same time withdrawing the particulars of physical identity to construe herself within her own work.

Estrella Carmona. Motivated by compositions of great scope in the works of José Clemente Orozco, Estrella Carmona attempts a painting that partakes of a tradition of expressive power to construct an image of her own time. The era of technology and industrial forms are her point of departure. She brings this energy to her paintings by means of great diagonals and extreme expressionism. Themes of power and anarchy join in her oeuvre, her audacity and freedom stated in her consummate use of color and in the bolting of form, ordered by her command of composition: labyrinths contained by conscience, disorders guided by her confidence in herself as a painter. Conspicuous in her thinking and motivation is the persistence of painting as a moral and transcendent statement.

Fabian Ugalde's work rises out of the aesthetic tradition of the comic, animation and wallpaper designs, in which he mixes irony with a vocation for entomology: bugs, bees and all sorts of insects that make up the silhouettes of his characters. A figuring composed of organic elements, absent faces, implications of sexuality, tenderness and infantilism and saccharin violence. He creates a fresh language, sure-handed drawing and a paradoxical conceptualization of space accentuated by canvases liberated from the frame.

Magali Lara. Her most radical medium of expression is drawing interrupted by the poetry of her sharp, pained, ironic words. Text and image in constant dialogue create new intimations of subjectivity. Her freedom as an artist who draws, has allowed her to approach the canvas with a figuring that is at once expressionist and allusive to a narrative, its limits and abysses. Today, her painting is concerned with the relations between line and space, color and the gesture of her great organic forms: flowers, fruit, the interiorly feminine, a metaphor for sensitivity, the site of the wound.
There is something fresh in the paintings of Magali Lara, the immediacy of line, soft colors become vivid and luminous, flooding what we see and touch. There is an interest in painting for itself, in restoring its language; space as an element that reinforces conclusiveness and vitality of forms, surface that allows itself to be traversed by color and the eye a witness to its fluttering. Her strokes are today like words whose meanings have changed into a different way of understanding language, perhaps in accord with times in which the relevance of the text has yielded to renewed interest in the visual.

Boris Viskin. A vast space and in the distance, the sign. A visible refinement of the pictorial ambience, and a decision not to overflow, surpass, contaminate spaces so carefully constructed to countervail discursive or expressionist painting. The suppression of narrative to the necessary limits and there in the middle of his ocean, a calligram, a metaphor for object-related, only there to establish the necessary relation between the referent and the pictorial space. Viskin's painting is created from the intellectual nature of tensions derived from his study of the principles of painting: color/space, background/figure, subject/object, lyricism/asepsis subjectivity. His latest canvasses, the product of his meditations on painting, allow him to re-appropriate subjects, forms and spatial solutions from a refined past concerned with a balance between the science of composition and the place of the subject, there in that seam in which the dialectic between the poetry of the image and its diverse readings is born.

Laura Anderson. An artist who draws, paints and creates installations, explores diverse media from a refined imagination and a visual culture that deals confidently with the metaphors of the body and the senses. Her latest works present the faceless silhouette and its opposite, the framed visage, two different names for the mask and the sacrifice. There is in these works a deconstruction of identities by means of ancient rituals of flaying, removing the layers of skin to reach the being and at the same time as a method of erasing the feature and the substance of physical appearance. Her gallery of portraits plays with diverse times, concepts and materials. Faces framed by large orchid leaves and the silhouettes of white backstitching, recall religious icons, but also arise out of some modern interpretation linked to indigenous rituals and popular and mestizo views. The use of organic materials, the body as continuity of nature is not only a way of introducing a feeling of the feminine, it is principally an affirmation of the connections between culture and nature.

Germán Venegas. Painter and sculptor of reliefs, with his eye and tools he traverses surfaces of wood as if they were stone, resistant, coarse and allusive to religious subjects. His sensitivity to carving is incorporated into his painting in which he traditionally includes elements of popular objects in form, texture and color. His current work is an exploration of other cultural objects and of religious signification. He contemplates them ultimately as elements of exotica and constructs paradoxes upon the view of others, from a vision in its turn marked as representative of the distance from and perhaps the resistance to cosmopolitanization of art.

Sergio Hernández. Nullifies the proposals of minimalism that seem to have exerted attraction and taken root in the work of some of the artists mentioned above. On the contrary, the light and space that prevail in his early works have closed in upon his canvasses in a kind of horror of emptiness in which the rhythm, color and simplified drawing of his dancers predominate. Hernández, rooted in a pictorial tradition with references to the traditional world of rituals and mythologies has closely and in his own way, followed some of the fundamental quests of 20th century art Mexican: the relations between pre-Columbian visual language, modern primitivism and the rhythmic exploration of color.

Miguel Castro Leñero. Well worked canvasses, muted in their refined coloring, interlace landscapes of signs, pictograms, lines, codes. There is in this painter an apprenticeship lodged in a vision beyond the contagion or apprenticeship of some painters of historical vanguards, Mondrian before constructivism for example who seems to have affinities with the presence of a landscape or figure and its absorption into space. The referent appears as a the product of an exercise in the disappearance of forms and in favor of a more meticulous working of the bi-dimensional surface. A newly minted abstraction that questions itself about cultivating the strident in form and color and is disposed to explore other values, subtlety, economy of line and the predominant role of space.

Biographical dates: Rita Eder,  Silvia Pandolfi

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©  Text: Rita Eder and Silvia Pandolfi

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