What about Mexico?

I have frequently asked myself what actually makes up Mexico, what its specific spirit is, and which qualities are characteristic of the country’s art. So far, I haven’t even come close to a tangible answer…

The wealth of the arte popular

To me, it’s certain that the by far most imaginative, complex, and superiorly crafted art in Mexico is the so-called arte popular, popular or folk art, the art of the Mexican people. In other words: an autochthonous and absolutely un-academic art that moreover continuously develops in a colorful and lively manner and keeps leading to ever new and diversified results. So far, so good. However, the intention behind the Daros Latinamerica Collection was not so much to collect popular art, but rather what is referred to as contemporary art.

Up to this day, I have difficulties in comprehending what the third of the frequently-invoked tres culturasin Mexico is. No doubt the pre-Colombian and the colonial epochs distinctly shape today’s Mexican culture in many ways, both in terms of aesthetics and contents. The numerous pre-Colombian high cultures alone (granted, the term pre-Colombianis per sesilly and should be abolished, serving, as it does, only to make European-style classifications, as in A(nno) D(omini)) would easily suffice to distinguish Mexico as one of the culturally most outstanding state systems of all times.

Where does modern art stand?

Photography: Rosa Ramón Royo, Luis Barragán, Casa Gilardi, 1976, Mexico City

The third culture, alas, is supposed to be the “modern culture”; only that modern Mexican culture is not very different from that of other countries. It goes without saying that a modern architect as Luis Barragán ranks at the very top. In the visual arts, however, Mexico does not fare well with modernity. The much-acclaimed and frequently mentioned muralists Siqueiros, Orozco, and Rivera, although definitely within the time span of modernity, would due to their pompousness never be recognized as such by any student of art history unacquainted with them. They would much rather be counted among the typical representatives of a romantic, folkloristic-kitsch “Machismo”—if such a category existed, that is…

The “contemporary” paintings from the 1990s, which I was shown in abundance at a renowned gallery in Mexico City in 2001 nominally as modern Mexican painting, were perplexingly reminiscent of the art production of the 1950s and 60s… In fact, apparently ancient, academic “peinture” can similarly be encountered on the walls in bourgeois houses all over Central America, where it definitely thrives.

Clash of old and new cultures

I recall a restaurant in Monterrey that I entered wearing shorts, prompting the waiter to place an oversize napkin on my lap to cover up my indecent exposure. It was likewise in Monterrey where, many years ago, the (beautiful) art museum intended to dedicate a gorgeous exhibition of Julio Le Parc from our collection to a governor on his retirement. The exhibition was never realized, though, due, among others, to the only person capable of operating the fax machine staying on vacation for too long…

In short—traces of the deepest 19thcentury are still found in Mexico today, even in the extremely academic mindset of many art-historical colleagues. They feel obligated at the same time to come up with some valid concoction that would serve to explain the basis of all of today’s artistic creation. And all of this crashes into a US-style turbo-capitalist commercialized present. It is certainly not easy for artists to find their own way.

So, the situation of the artes visualesin Mexico is somewhat disparate and inhomogeneous, rather inscrutable, and lacking clear contours. Quite a few contemporary artists have sought to overcome this applying a light version of Neo-Conceptualism, some with considerable success, even at international level. However, the Mexico hype of some years ago is already dampening, and things are returning to business as usual.

The golden thread

Specifically Mexican local color can be found, for instance, with the great artist Nahum Zenil and his effectual amalgam of Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois; or with the super star Francisco Toledo and his son Dr. Lakra. Then there is the phalanx of cool and internationally successful men, headed by Gabriel Orozco, followed by Carlos Amorales, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Damian Ortega, Miguel Calderon, and others. Among the female artists, Teresa Serrano, Teresa Margolles, Betsabée Romero, and Melanie Smith stand out. I have not exactly figured out yet why I—automatically, as it were—use this gender assignment along male/female categories—this would not occur to me for any other country in Latin America. 

It is difficult to pinpoint a comprehensive, overall, identity-forming component that runs like a golden thread through contemporary Mexican art. Perhaps it doesn’t exist; perhaps it is unnecessary to look for it. Mexico, this unprecedented, ancient nation of culture, vacillates between the clearly perceptible dominance of the USA on one side, which is massively challenged, taken advantage of, and hollowed out all at once, and the numerous small Central American states to the southeast on the other side, which in themselves exert little direct influence; nevertheless they act like the country’s Latin American fresh air supply.

Travel Log

Mexico 

June 26 to July 6, 2001

Visit of the Museo Rufino Tamayo, which is currently undergoing refurbishment—an aesthetically well-designed concrete structure from the 1970s, technologically at the state of the art. After the government change, Osvaldo Sánchez was appointed its director. We conduct a fruitful exchange of thoughts. There are plans for temporary exhibitions of national and international contemporary art. The Museo Rufino Tamayo is a potential partner for us.

Visit of the Museo de Arte Moderno with the exhibition of the grand Mexican trinity of artists, Siqueiros, Orozco, Rivera; not everything is of supreme quality.

Visit of the Museo Carrillo Gil; illuminating talk with the—also recently appointed—director Patricia Sloane, a lady full of character and in possession of an excellent analytical overview of the art scene.

Visit of Galería Enrique Guerrero, very professional, with a marked emphasize on young art.

Visit of the Espacio Ex-Teresa, a former convent near the Zocalo and location of international exhibitions of contemporary art and many other cultural events. Guillermo Santamarinais the manager of this state enterprise; he has contributed considerably to the development of the Mexican art scene over the past years, just like the museum directors mentioned above.

Visit of the Galería Nina Menocal, with a second-rate program.

Visit of an exhibition opening in the Galería de Arte Méxicano. The oldest gallery of Mexico has a rich tradition and is currently venturing to take up a program of young artists. 

Visit at a book presentation of the critic Raquel Tibol in the Museo Rufino Tamayo. Visit of the Galería López-Quiroga, where we encounter the older artists of Mexico; predominantly painting that, even if it was created only yesterday, evokes the 1950s and 60s. 

Visit of the Galería OMR (Jaime Riestra and Patricia Ortiz Monasterio), where we acquire a deep look into current art production.

Visit with the art critic Olivier Debroise, key figure for the segment of artists who are not represented by the galleries. 

Visit with the artist Milagros de la Torre; the young photographer is good, but in the end she does not convince us.

Visit with the artist Miguel Ángel Rios, whom we already met in New York, and his wife Teresa Serrano, also an artist. They brief us on their projects, and we like several of Teresa Serrano’s videos very much. We also meet two very young, eager, and talented artists: Stephan Bruggemannand Iñaki Bonillas, who run a Centro de Arte together.

Visit of the alternative art space La Panaderia, talk with the director Michèle Faguetwho will soon take up office in Bogotá; she informs us about a number of very young artists and shows us a few videos. 

Visit of exhibition openings in the Galería Guerrero and at Espacio Ex-Teresa (sound installations by international artists); we wonder about the large, young audience at all of these events and soon learn that this is an entirely new phenomenon in the Mexican art scene.

Artists’ lunch organized by Teresa Serrano at her hacienda outside of Mexico City; more informative talks.

Meeting with the Chilean artist Christián Silva, who presents his works in a very flowery manner; we do not enjoy it.

Visit with the young curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, who gives us invaluable advice and makes a highly respectable and professional impression on us.

Visit of the Jumex-Collection outside of the city (Jumex = Jugos de Mexico, the country’s biggest producer of fruit juice). An impersonal space created amidst the production facilities accommodates parts of the international contemporary collection (since March). We are allowed to see the other parts in the files and become familiarized with the entire collection. It seems to be made for an international audience and is wholly devoted to the bloodless agenda of a contemporary market segment. Only two artists convince us: Tony Oursler and Mike Kelley. The young owner of the collection, Eugenio López,and his curator Patricia Martinare both traveling and unavailable.

Visit of the Galería Kurimanzutto (Jose Kuri and Monica Manzutto); interesting program that we will continue to follow up on; both are very much internationally involved.

Meeting with the executor of the legacy of the deceased Mexican artist Ulyses Carrión, which primarily comprises artist’s books—some of which are really good. Neither provenience nor further fate of these works becomes very clear to us.

Studio visit with Yishai Jusidman: this highly intelligent artist with a conceptual approach cultivates excellent painting at a high aesthetic level. We decide to purchase works from him.

Sightseeing of the frescoes by Diego Rivera on Mexican history at the National Palace—quite suspenseful between cloying romanticism and drastic verismo.

Another visit at the Galería OMR, where we meet the photographer Pablo Ortiz. He shows us his extensive map for México City, as well as ethnologically interesting photos of indigenous peoples from the northwest. The photos by the young artist Maruch Sántiz-Gómez from Chiapas impress us so that we purchase a selection of them. In the evening, the exhibition Thomas Glassford opens at the gallery; most of the people we have met during the day are also there.

Mexico will keep us busy for some time to come. We realized that there are almost no artists who are interesting for us and who have already reached a mature age. Outstanding items are most likely to be found in the age group between 25 and 45: we will have to look into these. Although there is relatively little going on in cultural terms for a city of 25 million inhabitants, there is still a fair number of very ambitious activities that have only been around since recently and that seem very promising. An optimistic mood and spirit of change prevails that is buoyed up by an intense but realistic hope for the future.

  1. It’s funny, every time I read about someone trying to identify (through texts, but most often on exhibitions) the thread of “what actually makes up -a nation-” (obviously “the nation” is always patronisingly recognised as “ancient, but…”) I wonder what would happen if the people from those nations did the same coming into Europe. Imagine a Mexican curator coming into France, Germany, or the UK, and publicly, from an institutional position of power, claim to try to understand “their art”, as if it was some anthropological exercise into the unknown. “What is it that makes it unique?”. What would we be called? Just wondering.

    1. Thank you for your commentary, Marisol! I really want to go further on much deeper into exactly what we consider to be the other etc.
      But believe me, those questions touching the so called mentality of a country’s citizens has accompanied me throughout my extensive and intensive travels all over Latin America, Colombians asking me, Hans, what makes the Argentinians and their art so specific, Chileans asking me about Cubans etc.

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