By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, September, 2019
The coastal enclave of Puerto Vallarta is a gorgeous, welcoming place with a genuinely fascinating history expressed in its architecture, food, and the unique qualities of its visual art culture. Cobblestone streets, fieldstone walls, verdant hillsides, legendary sunsets, bustling street life, public sculpture, adapted architecture, world-class street art, a taste for the traditional, and a thirst for the international all contribute to PV’s unique visual-culture blend that is rooted in folk and vernacular but explosively brings it all forward.
On a recent trip to the city, visiting several of its art galleries (NB: art gallery can mean something a little different in PV, more on that later), two intertwined ideas presented themselves -- the exciting hybrid of layered tradition and modernity that manifests in the town’s aesthetics, and the question of how art functions and for which audiences, be they local or visiting. Art that keeps tradition alive edifies both locals and visitors; infusing legacy practices with a modern flair, or an urban or Pop flavor, makes it all the more appealing.
Although it’s an iconic tourist destination for flocks of vacationers from around the world and within Mexico, we are not talking about touristy souvenirs. We are talking about a proliferation of talented, serious artists who live and work in the community, and about the multifaceted art world they have cultivated. There are also several hundred thousand year-round residents in PV (it’s the second largest city in the state of Jalisco behind Guadalajara). So there is also the question of access for the region’s local art lovers, which includes not only supporting PV-based creatives, but also the curatorial ideal of bringing art from around the world for the benefit of local audiences who want and deserve world-class culture in their own city.
Like everything in PV, all of this is happening simultaneously, and sometimes at the same time in the same place. And it’s happening against a backdrop of dramatic natural beauty and picturesque public squares, bright color, enticing food, dazzling sun, and operatic rains. Context is everything, especially in a place like PV. (Fun fact: Our hotel, the Sheraton Buganvilias, was built in 1979 and was the brand’s first property outside the U.S., was designed by starchitect Luis Barragan, and you can tell in many of the details.) Here are some of those gallery highlights worth seeking out for yourselves -- in between rides to beach clubs you can only reach by boat, and more rooftop sunset cocktails than you can even imagine.
The first day, the tone for this line of inquiry was well and truly set as our crew visited Colectika gallery and studio, and heard from its founder Kevin Simpson, a devoted expat, about his idea on the genre of ”ancestral contemporary” art. The gallery represents and secures commissions for a collective of indigenous artists, literal masters of their practices in painting and especially beadwork who live and work in the often remote regions around the city. Besides creating a path for sustaining the centuries-old traditions, the system creates a dialogue with a wider contemporary art world, and in the gallery it’s clear to see influences of modern culture and iconography, scope and scale within these artists’ individual styles.
Outside Colectika’s doors is a stunning mural, one of many hundreds that appear in neighborhoods old and new throughout the town. In fact the prolific and dynamic street art scene in PV has been well chronicled online and especially on Instagram, and far from being an outlaw type situation, the artform is predominantly supported and frequently commissioned by the city itself. Like street art around the world, the work in PV excels at this old-meets-new evocative passion, and honestly exploring it could make for its own entire destination excursion.
Subsequent days found us exploring a handful of contemporary venues whose settings and exhibitions went even more directly and profoundly to the heart of this old-meets-new matter. Galeria Omar Alonso, which occupies two quite diverse spaces facing each other across the intersection also home to the famous Cafe des Artistes; and Galeria Corsica, an exceptional spot holding court on that same corner for some 20 years.
Galeria Corsica is both regal and a bit of a fun house at the same time. Its stone courtyard is festooned with stylized, spiritualist bronze figures, and its porticos and loft spaces exhibit an array of paintings and sculptural works that each an eccentric, exuberant way take on tropes of convention, art history, and right now. From the urban to the operatic, glitter-bombed and gilded, Pop to Postmodern, the rooms feel like they are home one voracious collector’s treasures, with rotating pride of place for an artist’s newest works.
In Omar Alonso’s first gallery space, an intimate, sun-dappled courtyard of ivy covered walls opens off a portico space into a cool room of trussed doorways and antique windows. A group show of majestic bronze sculptural figures in a surrealist but classical, literary stance and colorful genre paintings were all organic in their synthesis with the poetic, romantic architectural setting.
Across the street, a clean white-box contemporary space showed new works by the artist Davis Birks, who has rather adopted PV as his home. Birks’ exhibition, as all his work, takes both a politically engaged stance against systemic corruption, injustice, environmental degradation, and greed, as well as an innovative, beguiling relationship to materials. For example, a negative-space map of the U.S. outlined by origami dollars bills which in its patient precision is a captivating image, but in meaning is far more accusatory toward the behavior of Goliath.
Birks is also involved with another nearby contemporary outfit, Oficina de Proyectos Culturales, a non-profit whose mission is to bring A-list, often more conceptualist, but always politically charged exhibitions to local PV audiences -- for many or most of whom such an undertaking may well offer their only exposure to the upper echelons of international contemporary fine art. They operate a free reading room as well, stocked with multilingual books and periodicals for anyone who wants to learn more about the international world of modern art today.
Of course we visited the famous Malecon seaside promenade with its dozens of sculptures that is overall a huge point of civic pride. Pretty much every genre of sculpture makes an appearance along its path, from whimsical to gently abstract, folkloric to character studies, and even a landmark installation of biomorphic, patinated chairs by noted Surrealist Alejandro Colunga. The beloved Washing Woman nearby is a nod to a disappearing local tradition that also symbolizes economic progress. Like so much else in town, it’s complicated.
The citizens of PV do love their public art; and a bit south of the official Malecon’s southern end a more casual stretch of the boardwalk continues and at a certain point, you reach the Tile Park, El Parque de Azulejos, officially Lazaro Cardenas Park, where the artist Natasha Morags has been slowly covering every available inch of the rundown square’s infrastructure with prismatic mosaic pieces for a few years now, and is intent on continuing the work until its completion.
One interesting phenomenon, not exclusive to PV certainly but more prevalent than in, say, Los Angeles, is that “gallery” often means something a little different. For example, Malecon sculptor Jim Demetro has a gallery space facing his most famous work, the boys with the donkey that sits in Tile Park. (He also did the washer-woman piece further up.) And like a great many artists in town, he’s set up the street-facing part of his studio as a proper gallery of his own work. It’s not an unruly open studio, and it’s not a store, it’s something in between, and once you know what you’re looking for, you begin to see them on nearly every block.
One of the coolest spots ever is just such a place, the strikingly quirky and utterly magical art shop Fungus Fou. It’s an intimate eye-candy art emporium jam-packed with Mar Coria’s paintings and her husband’s off-beat t-shirts. Her paintings blend traditional and familiar scenes with fantastical, contemporary surrealism in saturated, high-gloss motifs of wrestlers, taco vendors, UFOs, exotic dancers, naughty bits, loteria, landscapes, and street scenes in a totally unique and completely irresistible vibrant contemporary folk. Just when you think you’ve made a discovery, it turns out Coria has a gallery in New Orleans -- another brilliant city with a taste for evolving cultural traditions and timeless magic.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.
She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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