By KAREN MOE, February 2020
Are we supposed to want to hug art? Or, even if we don’t particularly want to, does art have anything at all to do with hugging?
Apparently, yes, at the Material Art Fair during this year’s Mexico City Art Week. With unchallenging objects both in fabric and en-laquered, there was quite a bit of cute going on. I was told that Isabel Yellin’s little mattress called Writhe of Chicago’s M. LeBlanc Gallery literally does provoke the desire to hug, even though the plush worms would evoke the opposite if they weren’t dolled up in shiny nylon and velveteen. Nevertheless, despite this cozy writhing around and through a very comfortable looking mattress where insight through contradiction could be conjured, I wasn’t intrigued beyond the desire not to hug.
At Leto Gallery from Warsaw, Maurycy Gomulicki’s stylized plexiglass serpents were in aesthetic harmony with Carlos Rosales-Silva’s acrylic cockfight-gone-good over at the Beverly of New York’s Ramp Space. Growing up between the grit of graffiti and violence on the border of Juarez and El Paso and now residing in NYC, Rosales-Silva presents a most brutal act of anthropocentric entertainment that has been pop-arted-out into an exoticized state of groovy curves. As a comrade in pretty lining the ramps that took the visitors up and down the three floors of the fair were Jack Henry’s birthday-cake-pink assemblages. Composed of a mixture of found objects from industry and nature, chains, rebar, leaves and flowers are coated in resin to offer slices of a contradictory celebration.
At Guelph Canada’s Ed Video booth, Robert Dayton explained to me how his pen & ink on paper, Cherry Blossom Unstill Life, with Canada (the Sexy Bits), exposes the abject beauty of the national Canadian candy, Lowny’s Cherry Blossom, and how the candy is a stand-in for Battaille’s story of the eye. In a video that was hung beneath a gush of cherry blossom syrup, Dayton performs a ritual of loosening up Canada by pulling the country’s flag over his head and waving it about in an unruly fashion. He told me that, in his work, “genitals and flying saucers are trying to create a new, de-repressed Canada.”
Still gooping about in the Ed Video booth, Beth Frey has been indulging in some 21st Century fun by toying with her apps in order to achieve the grandeur of putting her own face onto her cartoony female constructs. Yes, these drawings do conflate the superficiality of 21st Century humans as reduced to the triumphs of their apps. Very true.
In keeping with the palimpsesting of the human and their technology, Christiane Blattmann explained to me how her High Rise Boots are modeled after any contemporary high rise. These Blade Runneresque, platform-heeled overlaps of art and architecture have been custom made for the social subject who is modeled by the constraints of ideological design. Blattmann’s boots would go well with one of Norwegian artist Yngvild Saeter’s street fighter masks, strutting the runway as an haute couture Darth Vader, ready to fashionably face battle amidst the global scorch of the impending Armageddon. Is there a creepy detachment from the real of reality in this Apocalyptic kitsch? Yes. But, it’s all in good fun-loving fatalism.
Back at Beverly’s, the piece that made me literally laugh out loud amidst all of this tom-foolery was Natalie Baxter’s Osso Bucco, a delightfully flaccid gun. Named after an Italian veal stew where the bone marrow is so soft it quickly becomes hollow when under boil (could this be due to the succulent youth of the cow?), this cushy orange gun is an ironic flop of wishful thinking because, as we all should know, beyond a world of art fair fun & games, the guns are far from flaccid.
Originally an outsider event, Salon Acme has become the place to be. Beginning eight years ago as the fair that promoted emerging Mexican artists and featured art and music workshops, the focus now is as much on the dress of the visitors as on the art. Indeed, after running the risk of wrinkling ones crisp cotton Tommy, Armani or Klein while squeezing through the packed salons, the priority was achieving the roof-top patio and being one of the envied ones who got a table.
Despite the mass of jostling fashionistas, though, intrigue was still to be found. Upon entering the first emerging artist salon, I came upon—or rather almost missed—Andrea Ferrero’s Mil Maneras de Olvidar (A Thousand Ways to Forget). In dialogue with the three second average of attention that a work of art is given by gallery-goers, this piece didn’t even get that as the majority didn’t see it at all. A few of us did, doing a double take as an artwork came into focus. Hovering, chimeric, on a quintessentially paint-peeled and cracked Mexico City wall, a colonial archway emerged in conversation with the corroding surfaces of its city. And yet, another more blatant conversation was going on as the pristinely clad hurried through the galleries, their attire in cutting contrast with the dilapidation of their context. In a colonial building that now holds the trendiest fair during art week, these oblivious beings, whisking by in the thousands without noticing Ferrero’s work, became an unwitting happening of a thousand instances of not noticing enough to forget.
The salon that Acme dedicates to a different Mexican state each year never fails to disappoint with its guarantee of substance, however. This year, it was the Yucatan. Rafiki Sánchez’s video, Continuo retorno de lo reprimido II (The Continuous Return of the Reprimand) features a woman, wearing a dress that looks as though it is made of the landscape, walking in circles on a desolate beach, her foot prints delineating a blood red sphere on the sand—a disciplined shape that could have been drawn with a trigonometry compass. She wavers. She occasionally transgresses this claustrophobically repetitive course, only to be pulled back again, reluctantly, obediently, heeding the return of the colonizing reprimand and its continued internalization of her place.
Emilio Said and Javier Álvarez’s video Arquitectura molecular-Acción para piano, arco, flechas y rizomas electroacústicos, (Molecular architecture-action for piano, bow, arrows and electroacoustic frictions) that played on a small TV tucked beneath viewing level on the floor, on the other hand, enacted a triumph of irreverence. Like the walking woman of Sánchez’s video, the action is relentless: a man shoots arrows into the guts of a piano that has been opened and its keys, or sonic architecture, are exposed. Five centuries later, the piano, its defenseless network of keys being gouged by arrows, is the Spanish Conquistadores. Their piano, in a state of dismemberment, tinkles its civilized sonata that once justified the slaughter outside. However, like Ferrero’s archway, Arquitectura molecular-Acción para piano, arco, flechas y rizomas electroacústicos’ ironic placement on the floor re-created the continued invisiblization of the systemically oppressed as the majority continued to walk on by.
And then, I came upon Lima’s Galería del Paseo and their exhibition of Sylvia Fernández’s paintings. Gallery director Marianelli Neumann told me how the paintings in this series are touch-stones of the experience of the death of a loved one, the slow disappearance and what remains in its passing. Conversación 3 is a back turned. Clots of black hair are being tugged and absorbed by flesh that is a melting symphony in a palette that mesmerizes as it risks sentimentality. Few stood long enough to breathe in the beauty of a dissolving pulse as this painting privileges us with the experience of temporality stopped. And we can fall into it. And we can try to hold our breath.
There was a lot of looking at Zona Maco this year. Of course, this is to be expected, or rather hoped for, at a visual art fair. Nevertheless, these acts, or trends, in looking spanned the selfie-mania happenings in front of Ray Smith’s most recent works on mirrors—Pepto Pop (or pop with indigestion)—at Monterrey’s Estereo Gallery, to the looking back at us that is filled with what looking can contain in the works of Ángeles Agrela and James Rielly.
I know artists generally cringe when they find out that another is doing a similar thing, but two artists focusing on dead-pan gazes staring at us through ridiculous surfaces serve to re-enforce the acute sapping of the soul of contemporary culture—as epitomized by the mirror mobbing happening nearby. In fact, for Rielly, also represented by Estereo, the gorging on the self was happening right under the despondent eyes of his works in water-colour. In Rehearsing for a New Life and Empathy and Solidarity, where these fabulously disheartened, stunned or indignant eyes stare out of their striped or polka-dotted casings, what should be reality is revealed as it peers through its cancellation.
At Marbella Galería Yusto/Giner, a sister gaze penetrated. In Retrato (portrait), Agrela’s female subject stares through a glossy mask of blue hair as a soldier in the army of absurdity. Are hers similarly indignant as some of Rielly’s eyes, a sneer concealed by hair styled in the shape of a monstrous bow? Or has she been zombified? I feel the former. This gaze is not falling for it; the eyes contain a depth that belies her outrageous, albeit delightful, ensemble. In many of Agrela’s paintings, the women are blind-folded by their surface. Eire is soon to be suffocated by an over-abundance of lustrous red hair that forces her head into a decorative bow as it steadily descends upon her face while, for Leticia, her braid has become a blind-fold that forbids seeing what is no longer looked at.
Things got in-your-face serious at Zilberman of Istanbul/ Berlin. Sandra Del Pilar’s multilayered pieces of oil pastel on canvas and transparent fiber beatifically brutalize a languishing woman as a hunter’s dream. Here lies perfect prey. Through Del Pilar’s technique of burying and blurring her female figures with layers of fiber, the myth of Ophelia shifts in and out of focus, and the normalized woman desired in her absence becomes a mirage.
Also at Zilberman, Yaşam Şaşmazer’s life-sized human figure has been thoroughly invaded by the decomposition of our nature. It was, paradoxically, relatively disregarded as it stood decaying and blending into the humans who chose to deny it or didn’t notice it at all—so immanent are all of our futures. Like a piece of Peter Greenaway inserted into the masses, Şaşmazer’s Devastation stood mute, as a universal Ophelia, inherently vulnerable, spanning genders, fungus and moss all of our fates.
Towering in the middle of Mexico City’s Arróniz Arte Contemporáneo’s exhibition, stood Moris’ Este la nómada invertida (This is the Nomad Inverted). An artist as researcher, Moris’ art is built with field work and, literally in the case of this piece, objects that were left behind during the protest marches between Oaxaca and Mexico City from 2014-2015.
On September 26th, 2014, forty-three student teachers from the Ayotzinapa Normal School were disappeared while travelling to the annual memorial at Tlatelolco, a Mexico City apartment complex where hundreds of university student protestors were slaughtered by the Mexican military in 1968. Known as Normalistas, the teachers in these rural schools refuse to participate in the educational reforms that were being imposed by the then PRI government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, reforms that, ostensibly, would make cheap Mexican labour more abundant for the profits of international corporations. Instead, student teachers at the Normal schools are trained in activist politics and social justice. Of course, the PRI government deployed the usual tactic of blaming the disappearances on the cartels—even though Mexican military were at the scene of the crime—and intentionally botched both national and international investigations.
Between 2014 and 2015, groups of Normalistas travelled as nomads on their own land, on foot, back and forth from Oaxaca to Mexico City, in protest of the indifference of the government. Moris followed, collecting the objects—tools, sticks, gloves, shoes—either lost or discarded along the way and attached these artefacts to a pillar built of wooden boxes. The artist explains how the tools and sticks are gestures of action and raising your hand wielding your work tool while on the way to give strength to the protest. But the shoes, now petrified in dried soil and mud, remain as evidence of the futility when confronting an unhearing government.
Nevertheless, despite the shameful fact that what exactly happened to the forty-three students continues as undervalued and unknown, Este la nómada invertida is an act of inversion; the silenced stand as what the late Francisco Toledo would call an accusation, a finger pointing. Este la nómada invertida is the remnants of the left behind, what was lost and then found in the process of protest, a memorial where the disappeared are resurrected as a totem that will endure in its defiance of never forgetting. I was told by gallerist Adalberto Adame that a Belgian collector has purchased the piece with the stipulation that it stay in Mexico and be erected in a public place as a reminder, so that such travesties, along with the corresponding resistance, will remain in the social consciousness. Now, this is important. WM
Karen Moe is an art critic, visual and performance artist, author and feminist activist. Her work focuses on systemic violence in patriarchy: be it gender, race, the environment or speciesism. Her art criticism has been published internationally in magazines, anthologies and artist catalogues in English and Spanish and she has exhibited and performed across Canada, in the US and in Mexico. She is the founder of the Vigilance Fierce Feminisms Magazine and the blog The Logical Feminist. She is the author of Victim: A Feminist Manifesto from a Fierce Survivor 2022. Karen lives in Mexico City and British Columbia, Canada.
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