- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2005

An 18-foot-tall wrestler’s torso towers in the lobby of the Cultural Institute of Mexico’s “Sensacional! Mexican Street Graphics.” Along with the smaller street advertising signs, posters and wall paintings covering two floors of the Institute’s exhibit spaces, this outsized advertisement for the Ring Cafeteria represents the vibrant, colorful commercial art characteristic of Mexican streets.

“Sensacional!” aims to re-create the experience of walking through Mexican towns and cities, with their often humorous signs for taco stands, wrestling arenas, locksmith shops, beauty parlors, auto-body shops and other businesses. These fanciful images represent the art of Mexico’s working classes — still the heart of this developing country — and it’s important to exhibit artistic expression from that too-often-neglected segment of society. But there can be too much of a good thing. After walking through some 13 galleries, visitors may weary of these repetitive, if delightful, images.

The informative and imaginative —albeit unfocused — project was the brainchild of Mexican designer Juan Carlos Mena, who recognized that these signs collectively embodied a uniquely Mexican form of vernacular art in danger of disappearance. He and exhibit co-curator Deborah Holtz have organized the show thematically in sections such as “Work and Everyday Objects, ” “Food and Animals” and “Burlesque,” along with 10 other groupings.

“When I returned to my country in 1994 after eight years in Barcelona, I was stunned. It was like being a tourist in my homeland,” Mr. Mena explained at the exhibit opening. “I was so intrigued that I started photographing the signs, then directed others to shoot street images all over the country for exhibits like this and the book that accompanies it.”

Small sign-painting businesses called “rotulistas” make the mostly small, flat and heavily outlined forms of this art — reminiscent of 1960s American pop art, but different in spirit and intention. Fortunately, Miss Holtz filmed a rotulista group working and talking about how they apply the colorful acrylic paint by hand for flat areas and use rulers for precise outlines. The video helps explain the complex, and sometimes confusing, show.

Photos showing the signs in their original commercial settings line the rooms’ baseboards but do little to illuminate the exhibit. They’re too small for easy viewing, and it’s not clear how they relate to images not always placed above them. It’s puzzling that the curators didn’t make better use of these handsome photographs. Consolidating the photos in a few rooms, for example, might have added pace and variety to the show.

In the introductory “Work” section, a little boy hammers nails into a shoe for the “Ornelas Shoe Repair” sign — one originally painted on a wall. An image of a welder is applied to screwed-together strips of wood.

Signs of keys painted on metal announce themselves with “Locksmith.” Images of 1950s machines such as blenders, Singer sewing machines and irons are painted on wood and walls. In another room, animals and food are mainly applied to walls and metals.

A gallery that holds machine-made prints of pop culture icons such as Michael Jackson, members of the Rolling Stones, Goofy and an early version of Mickey Mouse illustrates typical Mexican enthusiasms.

Visitors must climb stairs to the institute’s fourth floor for the “Burlesque” section, one of the exhibit’s most handsome. Burlesque houses are still popular in Mexico City, where they are concentrated near the city’s center. The curators have included a selection of expertly designed vintage posters. Usually hand-lettered on paper announcing performers’ names — “Velma Collins,” “Valeria,” “Nahyra” — the posters reveal a design sophistication largely lacking elsewhere in the show.

Rooms showing itinerant heavy-metal performers and goods such as soaps and perfumes; a gallery of in-your-face photos of car fronts and backs; and the final room of cloth banners from wrestling arenas, along with other segments of the show, are likely to overwhelm visitors.

Focus by the curators on larger-than-life images such as the wrestler from “The Ring Cafeteria” and better use of what are obviously high-quality photographs would have improved the show.

Unfortunately, the exhibit gives viewers just a taste of what it might have been.

WHAT: “Sensacional! Mexican Street Graphics”

WHERE: Cultural Institute of Mexico, 2829 16th St. NW

WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Through July 15.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/728-1628

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