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The Heirs of Frida and Diego

Modern Mexican Art Assumes a Worldly Air

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page C05

They're calling the exhibition "Mexican Report: Contemporary Art From Mexico." But if you expect that title to explain this show, think again.

See, the expansive show of Mexican painting, video, sculpture and photography that opened last weekend in three District venues -- Curator's Office Micro Gallery, the Cultural Institute of Mexico and Meridian International Center -- offers none of that Day of the Dead bleeding-heart schmaltz the tourists pick up. (Okay, there's one robed skeleton canvas here, a single instance out of over 100 works, so I'm letting it slide.) Instead, the show tunes in to the amorphous, borderless international art world, terrain marked by far-flung fairs and biennials where artists from just about everywhere present work indebted to a host of isms -- most often conceptualism and minimalism. Their art has more to do with the art that came before it than with politics or statehood.

Feasting on Pollock: Monica Castillo's "Dancer's Self-Portrait." (Curator's Office and Robert Miller Gallery)

So how do the artists in "Mexican Report" assert their identity? Though they slide in political references when they can, most often their works attempt a truce between present-day art world mores and the impetus of their country of origin. Such brokering leads to some very compelling work, but the negotiations don't come easily.

Perhaps exhibitions based on nationhood have become quaint. Pictures from one country are likely to look a lot like pictures from nearly any other country (except, perhaps, Japan, whose loopy island insularity manages again and again to elude generalization). I suspect "Mexican Report" will go down as one of the last shows of its kind simply because it's modified by the adjective "Mexican." The images on their passports just aren't the important ones for contemporary artists anymore.

The show originated in Texas. San Antonio's Blue Star Contemporary Art Center and the city's Instituto de Mexico brought on Mexican curator Santiago Espinosa de los Monteros from Mexico City to assemble the show's 50-some artists and survey what's happening south of the border. He chose a solid group of up-and-comers, a few creative class elders and a handful of foreigners who call the country home. Certifiable art stars -- Gabriel Orozco, subject of a 2004 Hirshhorn retrospective, and the country's hottest conceptual artist-in-residence, Belgian expatriate Francis Alys -- are missing. Though edited for its Washington iteration, the exhibition occasionally suffers from lack of focus, but that's a minor qualm in light of the interesting problems it raises.

The best of de la Monteros's selections assert a nationalist agenda while operating comfortably in the international art milieu. Case in point, and perhaps the best piece in the show: Ambra Polidori's poetic video "The Abduction," on view at Curator's Office. (If you've got time for just one show, make Curator's your stop. Five videos by four artists are screened; together they total 25 minutes of some of the smartest work I've seen in Washington recently.) Polidori's work operates on two levels. As a formalist art object, it posits video as landscape painting, broadcasting a stream of images shot from the inside of a car tracking the desolate dirt roads of a destitute countryside. Set to a mournful string soundtrack, the piece offers a somber sequence of images revealing mountains here and run-down buildings there. Add to this visual information the work's back story -- it chronicles an area known for its snuff film studios, an area where countless women and young girls die -- and the video becomes a sorrowful comment on a pernicious national problem. The piece reads as both a Mexican product and as a contemporary riff on the landscape tradition.

Yet Polidori is something of an exception. Monica Castillo's sharp, smart video "Dancer's Self-Portrait" eschews national politics entirely. Hers is an example of a particularly stateless kind of artwork -- referencing above all this artist's creative forebears, from 1970s body artists to their abstract expressionist antecedents. In the video, a leotard-clad dancer has open paint cans strapped to her waist, wrists and ankles. As she jetes and plies, thick pigment slithers over her body or splashes on the floor. The piece is a comical sendup of Jackson Pollock-style drips and slathers, asserting a feminist take on abstract expressionist machismo. It's particularly refreshing when seen alongside Enrique Jezik's pair of pretentious videos, featuring power tools and heavy machinery, that tap the manly legacy of Pollock and company.

Over at the Cultural Institute of Mexico, an expansive suite of first- and fourth-floor galleries play host to a mix of painting and sculpture. There's too much to mention here, though I will call out some of my favorites: Alfredo de Stefano's lightbox-mounted transparency "Firefly," a gorgeous image of switched-on flashlights scattered across a cracked desert landscape that reads as an elegy to illegal immigrants; Fabian Ugalde's comic-book inspired paintings making light of contemporary art stars.

A predominantly retrograde cache of paintings and drawings hangs at Meridian International Center. Opening with Alberto Castro Leñero's tripartite neo-abstract expressionist canvas and continuing with Magali Lara's big, Cy Twombly-style oils and Boris Viskin's box constructions, the selection here seems hamstrung by its debt to mid-20th-century innovators. Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Ryman, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein are all conjured. The predictable and anachronistic work that results is particularly forgettable.

Whatever the successes and failures of individual works, "Mexican Report" makes clear that its country's artists have joined the ranks of international contemporary artists defined more by profession than birthplace. Still, the impetus to assert individuality remains. Negotiating the two is no easy task.

Mexican Report: Contemporary Art From Mexico at the Cultural Institute of Mexico, 2829 16th St. NW, Monday-Friday 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., 202-728-1645, and the Meridian International Center, 1624 Crescent Pl. NW, Wednesday-Sunday 2-5 p.m., 202-667-6800, to April 17.

Mexican Report: Select Videos at Curator's Office Micro Gallery, 1515 14th St. NW, Thursday-Saturday noon-6 p.m., 202-387-1008, to April 16.

The Cultural Institute of Mexico holds a roundtable discussion on trends in contemporary Mexican art tonight at 6:30. Participants include exhibition curator Santiago Espinosa de los Monteros, art critic Anthony Harvey, Hirshhorn programs manager Milena Kalinovska and Curator's Office director Andrea Pollan.

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