THE MURALIST tradition of Mexican art -- best known through the pictorial polemics of Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco and represented here in Washington by Roberto Cueva del Rio's three-story panorama at the Mexican Cultural Institute -- seems almost creaky and academic when compared to a pair of spirited exhibitions of contemporary art that currently inhabit the institute.
The better of the two is "Mexico Now: Point of Departure," a sampling of work made in the 1990s by 11 Mexican artists (all Mexican-born, except for one British and one Argentine transplant). Mounted in the Institute's Orozco Gallery (dedicated to the cobwebbed memory of the late expressionist Mexican hero), the avant-garde art here incorporates neon text, motion detectors, latex, video, site-specific installation, found-object bricolage, photography and conceptual art -- and only in a few cases that old-fashioned thing called paint.
True to its title, the exhibition is about leaving behind the past, but the abandonment of the brush is not the only point of departure illustrated here. Also gone to a significant degree are the social realism and revolutionary politics of these artists' forebears, topics replaced in large measure by a new obsession: art whose subject matter is art itself.
As self-absorbed as this art is, it still manages to dazzle and stun.
The navel-gazing is apparent from the very first room. There, Yishai Jusidman's oil-on-canvas "P.Y." depicts the face of a clown whose expression is caught somewhere between a grimace and merriment. More than a simple portrait, its subject is as much the greasepaint as the skin beneath it. Nearby hang Jusidman's "Yukio," "Mamekazu" and "Mamehiro," three nearly blank wooden panels whose egg tempera surfaces look like naked walls awaiting murals.
Speaking of blank, Boris Viskin's "Mondrian with Matisse's Goldfish" and "The Death of Painting" both make reference to the history of representation and the illusion of two dimensions in their thick application of glutinous white paint beneath which lie hidden traces of famous (and not so famous) paintings.
Unlike Viskin's cynical take on the art of the past, however, Melanie Smith's canvases imitating the styles of Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol are devoid of irony. Painted in the bright orange hue that has become, like Yves Klein's "International Klein Blue," this British expatriate's signature color, "Andres (Andy)" and "Gerardo (Gerhard)" feel as sunshine-cheerful as the artist's mixed-media assemblages from her "Orange Lush" series. In those, such goofy objects as pool toys, costume jewelry, even marshmallow circus peanuts -- all in the same shade of Tang orange -- fill large clear plastic and foam-covered panels.
Conceptual artist Monica Castillo's nine-panel "Pictures for Marta" records the artist's attempt to paint an idealized, if cheesy, landscape, based on feedback from her maid. Interspersed between four failed attempts (and the one successful version) are Marta's astute observations, such as:
"Las cascadas reales tienen muchos peligros, pero las pintadas no."
("Real waterfalls are dangerous, painted ones are not.")
Another Castillo installation, "Distributing Bread," fills one wall with cheaply-framed photos of people holding bags of bread, along with the actual bags scattered on the floor below. In addition to a baby and a domestic worker, most of the recipients seem to be artists, art teachers, art historians and curators (including Robert Stearns, the organizer of this show).
If the other artists in "Mexico Now" are less overtly concerned about their places in art history, beneath their iconoclastic detachment lurks a self-consciousness about the roots from which their strange offspring have sprung. Gerardo Suter's mixed-media video projection "The Black Box" is, in essence, a moody mural come to life. The flickering black-and-white image of a man (or corpse?) projected onto three stuccoed screens has a textural effect rare for video art, a medium known for its conspicuous lack of surface.
Diego Toledo's "Epidermis" breathes new life into an old art form in another way. As you approach the wood and metal contraption, its skin -- really a stretched sheath of latex embedded with light-emitting diodes -- becomes illuminated by hidden floodlights and the sound of a motor beneath its surface. This beast (part sculpture, part machine) has evolved pretty far from the ancient idea of a painting, yet Toledo has to tacitly acknowledge that he has slain the beast in order to flay it.
Upstairs in the fourth-floor Frida Kahlo Gallery, you'll encounter more of Toledo's devious constructions. He's one of four artists on exhibit in "idea + MATTER: Object Art in Mexico," a show of contemporary Mexican sculptors who have updated the surrealist notion of the "ready-made" (an artifact not fabricated by the artist, such as Marcel Duchamp's 1917 "Fountain," made from an upended urinal). Toledo's trenchant mix of the visceral and the heady, the pre-fab and the handmade, set his sculptures apart in an overly fussy and intellectual show that, after a while, can start to feel like a seminar in obscurity, particularly after some of the muscular works downstairs.
The table-top pieces made by both Luis Manuel Serrano and Martin Vinaver are overly familiar, calling to mind the collaged and constructed boxes of Joseph Cornell. Juan Gonzales de Leon, on the other hand, like Toledo, refuses to confine himself to a shadowbox, and the witty conceptualism and far-ranging articulation of his art, which deftly recycles themes and images from nature as well as from the artist's own work, is richly satisfying.
Whether accompanied by a theme or not, the overarching ambitions of many a group show often makes its thesis problematic at best. Here are two exhibitions that attempt nothing more than to take the artistic pulse of a nation more often overlooked than celebrated in the international art scene.
Whether they make any coherent statement beyond "Boo!" is debatable, but one thing is beyond question. Both the startling "Mexico Now" and the cerebral "idea + MATTER" do much to roust the ghosts of the dead from the walls of this beautiful but staid old building.
MEXICO NOW: POINT OF DEPARTURE and IDEA + MATTER: OBJECT ART IN MEXICO -- Both through Sept. 11 at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St. NW. 202/728-1628. Open 11 to 5 Tuesdays through Saturdays. Free.