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Mexican Magic 

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

Wednesday, Jul 23 2003
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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 Unity fresco 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. Mixografia uses 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.

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.

Reyes Ferreira paints his big-tent performers on translucent paper with gouache. The use of thick brushwork on tissue paper was already his hallmark when cosmetics pioneer Helena Rubenstein first introduced his work in 1942 in New York City, and later at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum. The most arresting of his previously unexhibited pieces in this show, Circus Figures, presents a female acrobat and a male clown in some post-coital free fall -- the trapeze artist tumbling from her swing, her legs splayed under the clown's demented grin. The composition is arranged with the inverted symmetry of a picture playing card: Facial features are mirrored at opposite corners of the sheet -- simple S-shaped strokes, circles, and crescents outline the noses, eyes, and mouths of this awkward pair -- while the menacing, limp clown and the terrified woman, who is outlined in black, plunge from the flying trapeze as her yellow leopard-skin cape ruffles in space. Reyes Ferreira's bold, thickly applied brushwork contrasts with the thin, fragile sheet to intensify the scene.

The enduring influence of European surrealism on Mexican artists is most apparent in the work of José Luis Cuevas and Alfredo Castañeda, both born in Mexico City in the 1930s. Cuevas is an exceptional engraver and draftsman, surpassing, in my view, M.C. Escher in the quality of his line and Max Ernst in his use of imaginative imagery. Cuevas' draftsmanship and technique hearken back to Rembrandt and Dürer, as curator Tere Romo writes in a brief biographical note about him, while the scenes depicted suggest the worlds of a Kafka novel or Beckett play. In his lithograph La Vida (Life), we see a wasted urban landscape inhabited by allegorical figures. A sleeping, docile artist sells a drawing on a trash-littered street, an anteater on a leash peering out from beneath his legs. On the chimney of the building behind him, an enraged man clutches what might be his tie or the daggerlike end of a noose as he rails against some unseen villain. Approaching the artist is a motley crew that includes a scantily clad woman and a brutish outlined figure with a reptilian neck. With arms raised above his head, this giant makes the hand gestures used in sign language for "I love you," even as he seems to flee from the woman. Marching ahead of them is a bizarre, threatening figure with a rodent's nose, a man attired in a seedy replica of what one of Rembrandt's Amsterdam burghers might have worn. A thread from his collar transforms into the tail of a dangling rat, and the elaborate strands of his hair are home to monkeys and fantastical animals. His right hand holds a flower and his left, grotesquely deformed, carries a tablet inscribed with the mirror writing used by da Vinci in his notebooks. It translates: "Instruments of death, 17th century and instruments of life, 17th century."

Cuevas' drawing is a tour de force of line and detail. The museum has recently acquired a collection of his Mexican brothel drawings, too, and he's certainly worthy of a future one-man show. Indeed, this exhibit is merely the shell of what could be a much larger offering. Such an exhibition could explore in greater depth the complex links between folk art and modernism that are so richly ingrained in 20th-century Mexican art -- and amply represented in the museum's holdings of some 12,000 works (which include half of the Rockefeller collection of folk art). My only cavil with the current show is the lack of information offered about the pieces: It cries out for a catalog or at least a handout detailing them.

About The Author

Carl Nagin

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