Mexican Magic

A show full of dream states, animal spirits, and fantastical realism

It'll be a long mañana before the Mexican Museum opens its permanent digs in Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta's planned terra-cotta-colored structure near the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: The opening may be delayed until 2006. But if you're hungry for a taste of what the museum's got, you can catch a preview in an intriguing show of mid-20th-century works on paper, "The Fantastic and the Familiar," on view at the museum's temporary home in Fort Mason. The exhibit is commendable for what it reveals about Mexican modernism -- and for the way it unifies the stylistically diverse work of eight artists around common themes of fantasy, magic, and the supernatural.

A fascination with the art of so-called "primitives" was a hallmark of modernist movements like surrealism, whose adherents found inspiration in African masks, pre-Columbian artifacts, American jazz, crime novels, and the art of the insane. Most of the artists in this show share the surrealists' interest in dream states, myths, and the unconscious. Mexican modernists also explored and appropriated motifs from their indigenous folk and from pre-Spanish-conquest cultures, as is evident in Diego Rivera's Pan American Unityfresco at City College. The small exhibit at the Mexican Museum underscores the rediscovery of the country's native traditions by a second wave of artists, who followed muralists like Rivera but who explored his sources in more psychological and less political terms. Unlike European surrealists, several of these artists came from the very Indian cultures whose aesthetic ideas they adapted in their work. As a result, their pieces show a more visceral and less intellectual engagement with "primitive art."

Rufino Tamayo, a Zapotecan Indian from Oaxaca, is a case in point. His scara (Mask) is a richly textured portrait of an ancient god reduced to essential geometric shapes. Tamayo was a sculptor as well as a painter, and worked as a draftsman at Mexico's National Museum of Archaeology. With Luis Remba, he developed a (now copyrighted) graphic technique called mixografia that allowed him to evoke sculptures while exploring highly textured colors on handmade paper. Mixografiauses a mixed-media printing process to enhance the textural effects, and we can see it in the marbleized shading of the mask's black and green background. In this piece and in the lithograph Femme aux Bas Mauves (Woman With Mauve Stockings), the divine and human figures are reduced to plain geometry: In the former image, the blocklike, triangular features of the mask suggest the mass and forms of ancient Olmec sculptures, while in the latter, the torso and head of Tamayo's clearly contemporary (and fashionably clad) woman are simplified to suggest some ancestor from Atlantis or Bronze Age Greece.

Sexy Lady: Rufino Tamayo's Femme aux 
Bas Mauves (Woman With Mauve 
Sexy Lady: Rufino Tamayo's Femme aux Bas Mauves (Woman With Mauve Stockings).


Through Sept. 27

Admission is free-$3


Mexican Museum, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F.

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Julia Lopez is another sculptor drawn to pre-conquest art and its techniques. Her two mixed-media creations in this show combine pastel and oil to portray females in dream states communicating silently with animal spirits. In Mexican Indian lore these spirits were called naguales, a kind of animal alter ego whose forms a witch or shaman-priest could assume. The naguales could be jaguars, rabbits, coyotes, or birds, and they appear in Mexican pottery, masks, and sculpture as magical beings, reflecting a belief that each person has an animal companion that shares his soul. In La Luna (The Moon), a woman with dark curls cascading down her naked torso stares out toward a distant horse as she speaks with a phallic-shaped red bird. In Largo Pensamiento (Deep Thought), Lopez depicts a lady reclining by a window, surrounded by two coyotes and an exotic bird. Her vivid palette of deep-hued, rich colors -- peacock blues, iridescent greens -- intensifies the brooding, eroticized atmosphere of the scene.

As in Lopez's work, the conversation between the human and spirit worlds is the subject of two images by Francisco Toledo, a Zapotecan from Oaxaca who studied in Paris and Mexico City. Critics have called him a "fantastical realist," and he takes Lopez's exploration one step further: His subject matter is metamorphosis -- humans transforming into (or coupling with) animals. His colors are more subdued than hers, favoring somber tones -- ochers, earthy browns, and greens -- as in the lithographs Caballos (Horses)and El Soplo (Breath). The latter depicts a figure that could be a shaman breathing a stream of life force into the belly of a horse, where a fishy creature assumes an embryonic shape. The scene transpires against a strange backdrop of fish and a crab raining down from the sky.

The work of two Guadalajara artists, Alejandro Colunga and Jesús (Chucho) Reyes Ferreira, evokes the world of clowns, acrobats, and magicians. Colunga, a self-taught painter who abandoned architecture for the circus, also explores human-animal transmogrification. In Mago Cantando (Singing Magician) he portrays a fiendish stage wizard whose song transforms into fantastical creatures. From his mouth emerges a bestiary of fish, eels, rabbits, snails, and birds, some with human expressions or terrifying disguises, suggesting a parody of Darwin's Origin of Species. From the snail's slimy corpus, a grotesque two-headed fish-woman appears. A fish wearing a horned mask with an extended tongue looks like a New Year's reveler. A five-eyed rabbit covers his mouth with one paw while limping out of the magician's mouth -- to join the parade of evolving monsters. Colunga's heavy application of paint enhances the garish, carnival-esque effect.

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