- The Washington Times - Friday, September 24, 2004

The Olmecs, one of Mexico’s most ancient civilizations, used the finely ground type of silicate earth known as clay to create carefully crafted effigies of their revered gods.Now, thousands of years later, Mexican sculptors use that same malleable and textural material to express something very different: the anxiety of the secular world of today.

The work of six of these contemporary sculptors is now on exhibit in the Cultural Institute of Mexico’s outstanding “Dream of Earth: 21st Century Tendencies in Mexican Sculpture.”

These six artists don’t comprise a school. Their only connection is their choice of clay, which they value for the superior expressive freedom it affords. Sculptor Gerardo Azcunaga, for example, says in a statement cited in the exhibit, “Pottery gives me the opportunity of an expressionist, organic sculpture, not limited to previous space like it occurs when using stone or wood.”

Both the bizarre and beautiful are represented among the exhibit’s 30 artfully installed and lighted objects.

Juan Marin’s sculptures are the most forceful and emotional on display here. Mr. Marin was born in Uruapan, Michoacan, where some of Mexico’s best pottery is produced. The sculptor twists and turns his figures. They writhe inside their individual despairs somewhat like the lifesize figures in Auguste Rodin’s famous “Burghers of Calais.”

Also emotional are Miriam Medrez’s explorations of loneliness and loss. Her sometimes anthropomorphic figures — made from clay, wax, photographs, rice paper and black pipe cleaners — can be heartbreaking.

By contrast, Gerardo Azcunaga tends to violently seize clay, molding it into heaving, organic globes and swelling ovals and piling it high for standing figurative forms.

While Mr. Azcunaga works with flowing shapes, Paloma Torres expresses what she calls “Mexico’s ugly, urban landscape” through her powerful slabbed constructions. “The city has a lot of pollution, so I try to both clean up the landscape and show pollution’s terrible effects,” she says.

Adriana Margain and Maribel Portela look to their pre-Columbian roots: Miss Margain by producing clay blowpipes resembling ancient prototypes, Miss Portela by delving into earlier peoples’ beliefs.

Visitors to the institute enter the exhibit through a spacious foyer and open gallery rooms dominated by colorful murals that snake up along elegant stairs. The murals depict Mexico’s history.

The display’s first gallery sets the exhibition’s tone by previewing several of its directions. Inside sits a severly pinched, small male figure by Mr. Marin that mixes pinkish and black clays.

Miss Torres’ white, rust and black “Landscape With Music Series” sets a gentler tone than her usual dark gray pieces. She says its horizontally directed wires can be played.

Contrasting are her darker interpretations of today’s life in Mexico City. For example, she runs rain down her office towers-like “Totem and Rain” — or could they be tears?

In “Untitled” in the same gallery, Mr. Azcunaga — a resident of the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, created what could be a standing tree curving in on itself.

In the next gallery, Mr. Azcunaga’s “Alternative Anatomies,” shaped by two opposing forms, gives the feeling of cracked earth with the all-over markings on the clay. The 2003 “Fountain” could be a primitive mother goddess created by stacking softish round clay forms atop one another.

Possibly the best sculptor in the show, Miss Medrez, also from Monterrey, creates mysterious, tragic-looking — yet also somehow playful — figures such as “The Frog.” Miss Torres explains that Miss Medrez first creates the clay image, then photographs the frog’s skin patterns, affixes them to Chinese rice paper and finally covers the whole with wax. The little animal has a human head and large human feet.

Her “Untitled,” a ceramic figure entwined with velvety textured, black pipe cleaners, is clearly a spoof on the figure lamenting its loneliness.

“The Dream of Earth,” which hopes to extend public awareness of the deepening interest in clay sculpture in both the United States and Mexico, was made possible by the Washington Sculpture Group in conjunction with the Cultural Institute of Mexico. Unfortunately, this superb exhibit is not scheduled to travel.

WHAT: “The Dream of Earth: 21st Century Tendencies in Mexican Sculpture”

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

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/728-1628

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