A celebration of Mexican art

Art institutes around Los Angeles pull out all the stops in honor of Mexico's bicentennial with a rich display from its 3,000 years of history.

Courtesy of the Museum of Latin American Art
Mexican art: Codex Aeroscriptus Ehrenbergensis is a 1990 book-form work of hand-cut stencils by Felipe Ehrenberg.
Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust
Mexican art: Watercolor-on-paper work is by Spanish artist Bernardino de Sahagoen.
Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The carved-basalt Colossal Head 5 dates to 1200-900 BC.
Alexandra Portis
Ocher-toned paving stones by Mexican artist Artemio use a revolver as motif.
Courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA
David Mecalco used paint on sheet metal to create his retablo (devotional painting) depicting an 'Aztec angel,' a wrestler giving thanks to the Virgin Mary.

Mexico marks two milestones this year: the bicentennial of its independence and the centennial of its revolution. To honor the dual anniversaries, arts institutions all over Los Angeles are mounting shows that trace Mexican culture from its earliest Olmec peoples more than 3,000 years ago, through the Mayan and Aztec empires in the time of Spanish conquest, on up to the most cutting-edge contemporary conceptual artists turning history and tradition on their heads.

Taken as a whole, these collections form a coherent vision of the emergence of a great civilization over time, not merely isolated moments, says Selma Holo, director of the International Museum Institute at the University of Southern California. "This kind of comprehensive look gives Mexico the respect of having a civilizational series of curves, not just a modern history but one that goes way back and really represents a huge cultural moment in the history of the world," she adds.

Mexican artist Artemio, who goes only by the single name, is part of the first wave of shows to open across the city. His installation, in the towering lobby of the midtown Pacific Design Center, is a grid of ocher-toned paving stones with what appear to be lacy motifs, much as the decorative tiles that adorn many upscale haciendas south and north of the border might have had. But closer inspection reveals the lilting designs to be made up of a repeating sequence of revolvers.

"I wanted to show that we have turned the violence that haunts our culture into nothing more than mere decoration," says the creator, dressed all in black with a tiny silver "A" on his lapel. "We don't want to see it or hear it or deal with it, so it comes across our televisions just like another form of entertainment or like another piece of wallpaper in our living rooms."

At the other end of the continuum, several miles away, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), prepares to open its show, "Olmec: Masterworks of Ancient Mexico," which includes monumental portrait head basalt sculptures and assemblages of smaller, intricately carved jadeite ritual objects. "Mesoamerica was one of the great pristine civilizations of the ancient world," says Virginia Fields, LACMA senior curator of Art of the Ancient Americas.

"We are so used to considering Greece and Rome as symbols of the birth of civilization as we know it," she points out, "but there are these other, pristine centers of civilizations which deserve respect. There is not as much attention paid to this as, say, Tigris and Euphrates or Greece and Rome, but this is our opportunity to say modern Mexico was the place where so much cultural innovation happened that resonated for thousands of years and it endures where there are traditional societies and languages spoken."

Ms. Fields is quick to point out that the modern descendants of these ancient traditions are not identical to the Olmec ancestors, "but because of their cultural significance, they have been modified and adapted in order to continue."

While the LACMA show doesn't open until Sept. 26, the Getty Villa team, up the winding Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, is in the final preparation for the March 25 opening of "The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire." Since this period is more familiar to museumgoers, says Claire Lyons, curator of antiquities, the show focuses less on the sheer splendor of the objects and more on the sociopolitical resonance that occurred when Spanish culture mixed with the indigenous traditions of the New World. One of the prizes on display: the Florentine Codex, a detailed journal recording the various cultural traditions the Spaniards encountered and attempting to contextualize and explain them to European audiences.

"It's a fascinating document," says Ms. Lyons, who points out that this is the first time in 400 years that it has returned to this continent. "It helps enormously to understand that this took place during the High Renaissance in Europe," at the same time that Europe itself was deeply involved in a backward look at its own Roman and Greek cultural traditions.

For instance, she points out, the codex attempts to correlate the various indigenous gods and rituals with their Roman and Greek counterparts, "which was not really possible, but the attempt leads to a comprehensive and exhaustive documenting of the world the conquistadors encountered."

Back in the heart of Westwood, on the UCLA campus, the Fowler Museum is hosting "Fowler in Focus: X-Voto – The Retablo-Inspired Art of David Mecalco" through May 16. Based on traditional devotional art, these works reimagine the conventional imagery of saints and religious icons from official church histories as figures from what the artist calls la vida mas baja, or the lower strata of society. Prostitutes, drug dealers, and transvestites are just a few of the outcasts that the creator wishes to suggest also need the ability to summon divine help via these shrines, says Patrick Polk, curator of Caribbean and Latin American Popular Arts.

"He tries to capture what spirituality does and can mean, or spiritual protection can mean, in saloons on street corners and parts of urban places like Mexico and that's an updating some might not want to see," he says, explaining that the artist takes the traditional folk art and updates what that form of spirituality might mean in the modern world. "It brings it up to the moment," he says, adding that in terms of having an eye for "the underrepresented or marginalized, he depicts alternate lifestyles that tend to fall outside of the traditional purview of the church." People from all walks of life pray, so he tries to represent that, Mr. Polk adds.

Other major installations include: "Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied" (September 2010-January 2011) at the Autry National Center of the American West and "Manchuria: Peripheral Vision – A Felipe Ehrenberg Retrospective" at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, Calif., (May 22-Aug. 15).

While contemporary Mexico may be facing many serious economic and social problems – issues tackled by the various modern artists such as Artemio and Ehrenberg – nonetheless, an artistic celebration such as this yearlong initiative can make an important contribution. "Culture plays an important role in helping to make meaning," says Ms. Holo, and particularly in troubled times, the power to create a sense of meaning is more important than ever.


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