Struggle invigorates "Mexico Now: Point of Departure," the Mexican Cultural Institute's intriguing group show of paintings, sculpture and mixed-media installations by relatively young, lesser-known artists. All of them seem to be battling to free themselves from the artistic confines of Mexican nationalism and to connect with art's international currents while still retaining a sense of national identity. In short, they come to bury Diego Rivera, not to praise him.
That's a tricky but worthwhile enterprise. Rivera, the greatest Mexican painter of the 20th century, died in 1957 but remains a large presence on that country's art scene. His monumental murals, full of revolutionary fervor, grace numerous public buildings in Mexico City.
Subsequent generations of Mexican artists have inevitably been forced to confront Rivera's personal as well as artistic legacy. He was a big, ugly man, with keen political instincts, a mesmerizing personality and gargantuan appetites for work, food, drink and sex. The artist Frida Kahlo was the second of his three wives. He was habitually unfaithful to all of them.
While there is no thematic or stylistic unity to the works by the 11 artists in "Mexico Now," they amount to a kind of collective rejection of the stereotype created by Rivera of the Mexican artist as a hotblooded, macho, revolutionary painter whose works explode with politics and passion.
There isn't much painting in the show, and what there is bears little resemblance to Rivera's style or content. The most interesting and original stuff in the exhibit comes from four female artists: Monica Castillo, Silvia Gruner, Betsabee Romero and Melanie Smith. All the participants seem more interested in soul-searching personal evolution than revolution.
Where political themes are addressed, they are handled with mature, cold-eyed precision instead of bombast. A critique of capitalism and consumerism is implicit in Marco Arce's "Power Series," a group of small, monochromatic, just slightly abstracted paintings of various symbols of money, power and beauty. The show has a kind of cool in the jazz sense of the word, as if the artists were weaving international and Mexican influences into intense but laid-back riffs.
That cool doesn't always work. Boris Viskin's big, white, multipaneled painting titled "Mondrian With Matisse's Goldfish" is essentially a quotation from the two masters' trademark styles and is meant to get us thinking about the physical boundaries of painting and the architecture of pictorial emptiness. It succeeds only as an achingly dull and forced contrivance.
But the exhibition's hits outnumber its misses. Nestor Quinones' "He Who Dominates Fear," made from cast acrylic resin, plastic and bits of wood and wire, is an effective synthesis of contemporary aesthetics with symbols from Mexico's cultural and religious iconography--a serpent, a shield and crosses. It's like a minimalist religious icon: Stare long enough at the stained surface of the shield and the image of a saint might emerge.
Betsabee Romero also addresses the history and spirituality of Mexican culture by building installations and creating objects from dried roses, a reference to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is said to have given roses to an Indian as proof of her existence. But Romero uses the flowers to construct things like fire extinguishers, complete with glass-doored cases. There are four of them scattered through the display space, and at first glance they seem reassuringly like the real thing. By the time one leaves the exhibition, they seem like a lovely, lighthearted jab at our need for security.
Several of the artists in the show have worked or studied abroad. Melanie Smith, who was born and raised in England and moved to Mexico in 1989, has two paintings in the show that are rather flat homages to artists Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter. But she also has a captivating assemblage called "Orange Lush" that is made from various bright orange items--life vests, garden tools, candy and bike streamers--acquired at street markets and bazaars in Mexico City. It is at once a swipe at materialism and an ode to a lively, colorful city.
Monica Castillo studied art in Mexico and Europe. Her "Pictures for Marta" play on the more global trend toward conceptual art and Rivera's exaltation of working people. Marta is her housekeeper, and in 1995, Castillo set out to paint a landscape to her specifications. The picture goes through five evolutions, each accompanied by Marta's written observations. It begins with a forceful rendering of Niagara Falls and ends with the housekeeper's ideal: a maudlin scene of an alpine brook that the artist bought at a street bazaar and then altered in her studio.
The work that best exemplifies the struggle of contemporary Mexican artists to come to grips with the nation's artistic heritage is a figurative painting titled "Sumo V," by Yishai Jusidman. It depicts a beefy Japanese sumo wrestler grappling with the giant outline of an even bigger fellow, a shadowy profile painted in brown. Their battle takes place in a creek bed. On one level, the painting is a study of form, color and texture. But it is also a metaphor for the struggle of many younger Mexican artists trying to come to grips with Rivera's legacy and to make their own space on the world scene.
Jusidman's painting calls to mind "Jacob Wrestling With the Angel," which was painted by Rembrandt around 1660 and hangs in Berlin's Picture Gallery. The scene is taken from a story in the Book of Genesis: On the way to meet his brother Esau, Jacob sends his family over a stream called Jabbok. He then spends the night alone near the water, "and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day."
At daybreak, Jacob's opponent reveals himself as an angel of the Lord. Jacob demands and receives the angel's blessing.
Whether Diego Rivera's ego would let him concede, let alone bless, is doubtful. But if the work in "Mexico Now" is indicative of trends on the broader Mexican art scene, it doesn't really matter anymore. His shadow is fading.
Mexico Now: Point of Departure and idea + MATTER, at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St. NW. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., through Sept. 11. Call 202-728-1628.
CAPTION: Nestor Quinones' "He Who Dominates Fear," on view in "Point of Departure" at the Mexican Cultural Institute.