Editors' pick

Possible Worlds: Mexican Photography and Fiction in Contemporary Art

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Editorial Review

Art review: ‘Possible Worlds: Photography and Fiction in Mexican Contemporary Art’

By Michael O'Sullivan
Thursday, July 14, 2011

Despite all that Photoshop has done to undermine our faith in photographs, there’s still a lingering sense that, ultimately, what the camera produces is a kind of evidentiary document. How else to explain “Possible Worlds: Photography and Fiction in Mexican Contemporary Art,” a strong, nine-artist exhibition at the Art Museum of the Americas? The show’s very subtitle suggests an inherent dichotomy between fiction and photography, as though the word “photography” were somehow synonymous with “fact.”

It isn’t, of course. And yet the pictures here do get at a kind of truth.

There’s a rich tradition of surrealism in Mexican art. “Possible Worlds” shows that it’s alive and well. Photographer Kenia Narez’s pictures — which depict a young woman or girl posing with a baby pig and other (likely dead) animals — are among the first images you’ll see. Inspired by such children’s books as “Alice in Wonderland,” they’re dark and somewhat disturbing, but in a familiar way. By going out of their way for shock value, they go for the easy punch line. Nevertheless, their theme of childhood nightmares resonates.

Similarly, the work of Ruben Gutierrez plays on universal fears. Digitally altered on a computer, and then reshot off the computer screen so they look like grainy images lifted from TV news footage, Gutierrez’s photos depict a post-apocalyptic world of war, flooding, fire and other disasters, both natural and unnatural. They tap into our very real concerns about terrorism and global warming.

Taken from the artist’s series “This Is Brilliant but Somehow Fake,” the images underscore a central contradiction of the show. Like most of the other works, they are conceived, constructed or manipulated by the artist. But they’re still within the realm of the plausible.

In other words, although they’re artificial — in the sense that they involve artifice — they’re still real. Or real enough.

What “real” means shifts from artist to artist. For Damian Siqueiros, who is at once the photographer, choreographer, costumer, set designer and make-up artist for his highly staged photographic tableaus, it’s art itself. His work in “Possible Worlds” — much of which is from a series lamenting government cuts for the arts — features contemporary take-offs on paintings of the mythological Icarus and a photograph inspired by “Hamlet’s” Ophelia. Art may not be “real,” but his pictures suggest that its impact is.

Among the most striking works in the show are several by Daniela Edburg. Her pictures of a woman in a red and white dress, sprawled on the ground in front of a giant billboard in the silhouette of a bull, or of a woman in a sweater with absurdly long sleeves are arresting, but in the manner of fashion photography.

Far more haunting than anything in the show, however, is Mauricio Alejo’s work. Shot in domestic spaces such as a living room, kitchen or hallway, his photographs use subtlety and understatement, not bizarre props or digital ma­nipu­la­tion, to highlight the strangeness of the ordinary: a tablecloth suspended in mid-air; a tennis shoe wedged into the corner of a room, where wall meets ceiling; a hand simply pointing toward an upholstered chair.

They don’t have to make anything up. Or if they do, it involves the slightest of adjustments. It’s as if they’re saying, “Look here. The ordinary is extraordinary enough.”

The story behind the work of Ricardo Alzati

Most of the mystery in “Possible Worlds” is additive; there’s something unexpected in the frame — lurid color, an improbable pose or setting, an outlandish or illogical context — that makes you do a double take. In the case of one artist, there’s something missing.

Ricardo Alzati’s pictures pore over a single image: a 1904 black-and-white photograph of a prosaic scene of Chapultepec Lake in Mexico City in which Alzati discovered that at least one figure, a woman, had been edited out, by hand. Alzati includes a print of the retouched image here — called “Borradura (2),” after the Spanish word for “erasure” — as well as close-ups showing the ghostly deletion. There’s no explanation sought (or given) for the alteration, but it reinforces the notion that photographic truth has always been an elusive target.

As for the original artist, his name was Guillermo Kahlo, a well-known German-born photographer at the time. If his surname rings a bells, it should. You may be familiar with the work of his daughter Frida, a painter, one of Mexico’s — and the world’s — most famous surrealists.

— Michael O’Sullivan