- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

In the haunting “A Soul I and II” — a digital photograph of two paraffin candle “hands” — Mexican artist Martha Maria Perez Bravo uses up-to-the-minute pictorial techniques to evoke older pre-Columbian and Roman Catholic traditions. The work typifies the fascinating, often incongruous, marriage of the old and new, the mystical and the avant-garde that fills “Mexican Report: Contemporary Art From Mexico.”

With 103 works by 52 Mexican and foreign artists living in Mexico distributed among three exhibition spaces — the Cultural Institute of Mexico, the Meridian International Center and the Curator’s Office Gallery — “Report” aims to display the rich diversity of contemporary art produced by our neighbor to the south.

Exhibit curator Santiago Espinosa de los Monteros, a prominent Mexican writer and curator, explains in the valuable brochure that he chose to emphasize the contemporary aspects of his country’s art rather than its roots. To an extent, he’s successful. Varied and adventurous in its range of realist, abstract, pop, photographic, video and installation works, the show gives new meaning to the fashionable art term “pluralism.”

The omnibus approach, however, can be confusing. Mr. Espinosa likens visits through the institute and Meridian Center to “a tour of Mexico’s major art centers and artists.” That covers a lot of aesthetic ground — perhaps too much.

The exhibit begins in the institute’s enormous lobby with Benjamin Torres’ assemblagelike “360 RPM Wood Construction 88 Assembled Crutches,” a “wheel” of wooden crutches. Alberto Castro Lenero’s acrylic “Double Figure,” a horrific-surrealist vision whose interior forms could be gyrating human bones, follows in the next gallery. Visitors are then invited to walk through Perla Krauze’s room-sized installation “Suspended in Time” (2003), a luminous environment of suspended, smallish acrylic rocklike forms.

As they explore the exhibit, viewers may be struck by its pervasively mystical, otherworldly mood. Take, for example, the wheeled cardboard containers of Davis R. Birks’ “Social Servants” (1988-89). Flattened, capped heads reminiscent of pre-Columbian Olmec sculptures top the faces of the “servants,” who eventually will move the containers.

Death has long been a familiar theme in Mexican art. In the past, when death was considered an extension of life, artists depicted cheerful skeletons celebrating “The Day of the Dead.” In “Holy Death” (1999), an acrylic on canvas depicting a berobed skeleton, Cisco Jimenez continues the tradition — and adds an ironic twist by sewing babies’ pacifiers onto the canvas.

Dying is not as cheerful in the institute’s “Death Girl,” by Daniel Lezama. In choosing the painting, Mr. Espinosa shows that he’s not afraid to reveal the seamier side of Mexican life. The young girl sprawled in the foreground is one of the many migrant female workers killed every year by men who prey on them for sex and money in northern Mexico.

Of course, the curator includes many more significant new-and-old images, such as Monica Castillo’s video in which a ballerina pours paint over herself from containers that look like Mayan warriors’ belts. Another is Gabriela Lopez Portillo’s “Dress” (1994). Crocheted from her own hair, the simple dress evokes women’s lace dresses from the period of Spanish rule.

In striving to showcase the cosmopolitan diversity of contemporary Mexican art, Mr. Espinosa has assembled an exhibition whose scope is not likely to be equaled again soon. Yet, what ultimately stands out in “Mexican Report” is, instead, an indigenously Mexican otherworldliness.

WHAT: “Mexican Report: Contemporary Art From Mexico”

WHERE: The Cultural Institute of Mexico, 2829 16th St. NW; the Meridian International Center, 1630 Crescent Place NW; Curator’s Office Gallery, 1515 14th St. NW, Suite 201

WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays through April 22 at the Cultural Institute and from 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays at the Meridian Center; exhibit videos shown at Curator’s Office Gallery noon to 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through March 26.

PHONE: Cultural Institute (202/728-1654); Meridian Center (202/667-6800); Curator’s Office Gallery (202/387-1008)


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