Mexico City’s International Celebration of Art: ZONA MACO and The Material Art Fair 2018

James Verbicky, Cranes sont en 15, 60 x 48 x 2 inches, Mixed Media and resin on Wood, 2017, GE Galería, Image Courtesy of the Gallery

February 7-11, 2018
Centro Citibanamex, Hall D AV. Conscripto 311 Lomas de Sotelo
CDMX, 11200

Material Art Fair
February 8th-11th, 2018
Frontón México De la República 17 Col. Tabacalera, Del. Cuauhtémoc
CDMX, CP 06030 


The second week of February in Mexico City is a must for art lovers. With ZONA MACO, the Material Art Fair, and numerous other in-gallery exhibits happening, it’s impossible to see it all in one week, but it’s certainly possible to see a lot. 

This year was the 15th anniversary of ZONA MACO, and the 5th anniversary of the Material Art Fair. It seems strange that a city of over 21 million people has only been hosting an international art fair for fifteen years but, before the 1990s, Mexico City was relatively isolated from the international scene. Taiyana Pimentel, curator, critic and the director of Proyectos Siqueiros, explained to me how, after Mexico’s economic crisis of 1994, “it was as though Mexicans realized that something must happen differently, that they had nothing to lose and, therefore, no fear.”

What had been a fiercely nationalistic art community began to reach out internationally, post-Revolution. Mexican artists like Gabriel Orozco, Miguel Calderón, and Yoshua Okón left Mexico temporarily for the United States. Experiences outside of the country inspired groundbreakers such as Kurimanzutto’s inaugural group exhibition "Economía de Mercado" (held in a typical Mexico City produce market), and Calderón and Okón’s innovative exhibition space, La Panaderia, in what was originally a humble bakery, located in the now prestigious gallery zone of Condesa.

The gradual economic upturn and cultural dynamism of the city started to attract foreign artists. British-born Melanie Smith and Belgian artist Francis Alys set up shop here, artist run centers began to pop up en masse, and art museums that traditionally had focused solely on Mexican artists began to feature a variety of work from abroad. 

The Material Art Fair, Mexico City, February 2018

In the twenty-first century, Mexico City is experiencing a veritable interational art renaissance. The low cost and high quality of production, the country’s rich history, and the inspirational street life continues to lure artists from all over the world to re-locate here. Julia Villaseñor, the director of press and communications at Kurimanzutto, explained how worldwide access to information has opened up many previously isolated cultures and that now, “knowledge about the art world is common ground.” Gabriel Elizondo, art director of Ge Galería, stated: “Mexico City is now a hot spot for both the Mexican and International art scene.” Reaching beyond the national legacies of Frida Khalo and the great Mexican muralists, over the last twenty years, Mexico City has become one of the places to be in our increasingly globalized world. 

ZONA MACO is the largest international art fair in Latin America. This year, the fair hosted 170 galleries from 27 countries across America, Europe, and Asia. Works by blue-chip artists like Jeff Koons, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson, and John Chamberlin were there; even Canadian artist Jana Sterbak of the infamous meat dress was present, now sporting a hairy chest.

However, even though it is always a pleasure to bask in the brilliance of the geniuses we know and love, it is the buzz of the new that always drives an art fair both for the galleries and the goers—and there was a lot of buzz and a lot of new at ZONA MACO 2018.

Mexico City’s Licenciado featured visual artist and set designer Orly Anan. The Colombian-born artist is interested in the intersections between ritual and every day life. During her walks around Mexico City, she finds the materials for her ready-mades that she then transforms into living fossils. In her MACO installation, Anan focused on the quest for emotional connection and romantic love in our cybernetic times. Two now-quaint retro computers hailing from the early 1990s, decked out in vulva–hued velvet and decorated with aphrodisiac kitsch, spoke the inherent ineffability of desire when separated by screens and masks. 

Orly Anan, Cena sin jamón, 2018, Found objects, wood, velvet, computers and video installation, 55 x 78.5 inches (detail), Licenciado Gallery

Represented by Travesía Cuatro Galería of Guadalajara/Madrid, British painter Charlie Billingham’s bright-eyed surfacings of Regency and Victorian era satirical cartoons entertained us from their charming court jester background. Nevertheless, despite the jolly palette, the seemingly innocuous beginnings are soon lined with creases and bags. We recognized the bygone era even before the gallerist told us so; perhaps that’s because we recognize it in ourselves, too. But now, instead of the lechery being presented on the pages of periodicals, Billighman’s re-takes are dressed up in the innocent hues of a child’s bedroom in order to satirize a sick culture that denies its own darkness. 

Charlie Billingham, oil on linen, 2018, 39 x 31.5 inches , Travesía Cuatro Galería 

Eugenia Martínez of Mexico City’s GAM Gallery showed one of her most recent works, “Somos la otra Costilla (The Other Rib).” The Mexican photographer, collagist, and painter finds her subject matter in Mexico’s colonial past. In this piece, she has changed the clothing of four Indigenous women from what was undoubtedly that of the Conquistadores into flowers. Made of aluminum, the flowers take on an ambiguity, as they could be both a re-cloistering and an act of liberation. The artist often surrounds her images with linguistic traps of re-perpetuated prejudice; however, in this piece, the title “Somos la orta Costilla” encircles and repeats as both a reminder and a revolution. 

Eugenia Martínez, Somos la otra costilla, 2017, Piezography on canvas, aluminum flowers, paint, 60.5 x 40.25 inches, GAM Gallery, Image Courtesy of the Gallery

GE Galería of Monterrey/Mexico City/NYC debuted their newest artist, James Verbicky, who gave us all a most inviting slap in the face. In Cranes Sont en 15, the Canadian-born Verbicky’s love of modern day mandalas decomposed into a charismatic skull. Built with strips of text taken from magazines, the artist assembles streams of social consciousness. And yet, stamped on the skull’s forehead, in the place of a Hindu tilaka, the skull proclaims our inherent dissolution. According to such a seemingly amicable skull, despite the hoopla of the ‘Me Me Me Me Me Me Me’ and the out-of-control egos of our contemporaneity, we are all “Made of Nothing.” 

Mexico City’s Galería Enrique Guerrero also featured one of their newest artists, Franco Arocha. Born in Guatemala and now residing in Mexico City, Arocha is fascinated by the scrappy beauty of the walls of Mexico and Latin America. The artist roams the cities and towns chiseling loose paint shards from buildings. He then composes what is typically judged as dilapidation, poverty, and neglect into exquisite collages that celebrate the cultural vibrancy of so-called disenfranchised societies. Each piece is named after its source and, at ZONA MACO 2018, Arocha brought us Mexico City. 

Franco Arocha, Mexico City, 2017, Paint Chips on board, 78.5 x 40 inches, Galería Enrique Guerrero  

Toronto and Montreal’s Division Gallery attracted a lot of attention with Nicolas Baier’s bronze rendition of the high tech camera the “Black Magic Studio Pro.” Probably the most posed-with piece at the fair, the state-of-the-art camera was created from the worst possible 3-D scan the artist could make, resulting in a 3-D print full of flaws that looks like it is being eaten away by rust. Paradoxically, Baier employs cutting-edge technology to create a work of art that is becoming a thing of the past upon its entrance into the market. 

Nicolas Baier, Black Magic Studio Pro, Bronze, 62 x 46 x 38 inches, 2017, Division Gallery

Nicolas Baier, Black Magic Studio Pro, Bronze, 62 x 46 x 38 inches, 2017, Division Gallery

Gallery NOSCO’s booth contributed a rhythmic eclecticism to the fair. The London-based gallery is committed to cultural exchange, and the curation of their MACO exhibit held true to its ethos. Kuwait artist Ibrahim Ahmed’s romance with floral fragmentations in “Ard el-Lewa #2” was juxtaposed with Romanian Radu Oreian’s oil on canvas “Vector Studies,” where TV fuzz and moss flickered in and out. To the right, Jose Carlos Martinat’s wall fragments and fiberglass “Dr” added an instance of the street. The bold lexicality of “Dr” visually tapered down into Alberto Casari’s stark yet gentle undulations in “EM02-12” that unified the apparently oppositional materials of bee wax and spray paint. The punctum of this multi-cultural assemblage was American artist Lauren Seiden’s “Rag Series” and “Cracked Reflections” where paper became metal and metal was able to float. 

Gallery NOSCO, ZONA MACO Installation, Ibrahim Ahmed, Radu Oreian, Jose Carlos Martinat

Gallery NOSCO, ZONA MACO Installation, Alberto Casari, Lauren Seiden

Lauren Seiden, Cracked Reflections, Graphite, glass wear and water, 98 × 59 inches, 2017, Gallery NOSCO

Francisco Toledo is the most famous living artist in Mexico, and one never knows what he is going to get up to next. Another highlight this year was his primordial bicycle, exhibited by Quetzalli Gallery of Oaxaca. The fusion of the animal and the human is a consistent theme in Toledo’s paintings, ceramics, and graphics; he maintains the inclusive tradition of his indigenous ancestry and resists the exclusionary anthropocentricism of the West. Using handmade paper pulp, the artist spiked the streamlined by covering what could have once been a pretty fancy bike with the texture of a puffer fish. 

 Francisco Toledo, Handmade Paper Pulp on Bicycle Frame, 2017, Quetzalli Gallery

This year, Mexico City’s Material Art Fair was an art installation in itself. Located in Frónton México, a newly restored art deco sports arena (circa 1929) on the edge of the city’s vibrant Centro Historico, the young fair stood as a living monument to the vitalization of Mexico City as a distinctive part of the international art community. 2018 was their biggest showing yet, featuring 75 galleries from 18 countries and 33 cities. However, unlike larger fairs that are becoming more about economics, Material is committed to maintaining its connection with the history and culture of their city, while at the same time celebrating a new generation of both local and international artists. 

The fun, the found, and the re-constructed were predominant tunes being played at the Material Art Fair this year. Indeed, at first plunge, the youthful buoyancy of much of the work exuded an almost childlike innocence, a retreat from the external horrors of our modern world. 

Parisian gallery Lefebvre & Fils featured Mexican artist Anabel Juarez's glazed earthenware sculptures that immediately delighted. With a palette on par with a Disney cartoon, a cheeky dialogue between the glazed and the otherwise, and the glorps and splots of a sloppily decorated birthday cake, one cannot be upset about anything when in their presence. In a correspondingly aesthetic frolic, Dominic Dispirito of London’s Annka Kultys Gallery used a new fangled 3-D pen to build a flower garden that is reminiscent of one of Matisse’s charming bouquets. An electric blue blob that is maybe a melting Popsicle then overtakes the whole pretty thing. 

Anabel Juarez,Glazed Earthenware, 3.25 -11 inches high, 2018, Lefebvre et Fils

 Dominic Dispirito, 3D Pen on Wood, 12 x 10 x 2 inches, 2018, Annka Kultys Gallery

Similarly, Tokyo’s Eitoeiko Gallery added Okamoto Mitsuhiro’s “One Piece by One Piece” to the fun. Mitsuhiro made a dress out of plush Japanese anime characters that was worn by an equally exuberant young Mexican woman. However, (and perhaps thankfully), all was not just fun and games in the Eitoeiko booth. Ryohta Shimamoto threw in some most welcome brutality with his “Old-School and New-School Nail Bats” and happily pointed out to me how “art is a weapon.” 

Okamoto Mitsuhiro, One Piece by One Piece, Stuffed Toys, 2018, Eitoeiko Gallery

Ryohta Shimamoto, Old-School Nail Bat and New-School Nail Bat, found bats and nails, 26.5 inches, 2018, Eitoeiko Gallery

New York-based artist Brook Hsu is represented by the San Francisco gallery Alter Space. Hsu, like other artists at the fair this year, riffs on the textile. “Hooked Spiral” is made of hand-made Lama wool and appears to have not quite left the body of the animal. The wool is hand-dyed, and the artist uses a process called needle felting, where she digs her images into the rebellious texture. There is a resurrection of Goth along with scrawls of bad graffiti as the artist poses the possibility of transformation and spirituality through art.

Brook Hsu, Hooked Spiral, 2016, Wool, 60 x 40 inches, Alter Space

Kyla Hansen of the Los Angeles gallery Five Car Garage also incorporates textiles into her work. Like other women artists over the last twenty years, she is a part of the Millennial revival of quilting, a craft that is still associated specifically with women. However, Hansen subverts such stereotyping by keeping hers in the company of her “Geodes” and their foundation in old car parts. Regardless of its societal gendering, Hansen is interested in any found object she can get her hands on from the desert landscape of her youth in order to transform it into what it was not. Like the makeshift houses of the desert, Hansen likes to put things together so that they can fall apart again. 

Kyla Hansen, I Woke Up in LA, 2017, fabric, paint, polyurethane, foam, found objects, 96 X 72 inches, Five Car Garage

Represented by Syndicate Gallery of Cologne, Polish artist Magdalena Kita does not use found objects per se in her series, “The Flesh of your Sons and Daughters.” Rather, she creates her own authenticity. The artist has resurrected the Byzantine style of religious painting, known for its use of egg tempura, gold leaf, and etching. The boards that she works with are traditionally made for churches and--get this--fabricated by a reclusive Polish man who lives in the forest. Like Charlie Billingham’s wall at MACO, the artist made a carnival out of hers by painting it with diagonal blue stripes that grounded the exhibit in a cheeky innocence. Nevertheless, reminiscent of the transgressions of Renaissance carnivals, the artist turns hierarchy on its head by switching gender on the Little Prince; the happy-go-lucky surface belies Kita’s dystopic vision for the future of Europe. 

 Magdalena Kita, Untitled Icon from the Flesh of your Sons and Daughters, Egg tempera and gold leaf on etched wooden panel, 20.25 x 10.15 x 1.25 inches, 2018, Syndicate Gallery

Wil Aballe Art Projects from Vancouver, Canada, featured works by Marina Roy, adding some intellectual play to the mix. Roy’s intervened books of literature appropriate a cloak-and-dagger technique found in old master paintings called anamorphism, where images can only be seen by straining one’s neck and looking along the plane of the painting’s surface. Roy paints her responses to the books’ contents on the paper edge where one would not usually think to pay any attention to. However, the artist then splays out the pages so that her subversive little secret is wide open for all to see. 

Marina Roy, Gravity's Rainbow (from the Thumbsketch Collection), 2018, ink and felt marker on book's anamorphic edge, 8.5 x 5.5 x 1.5 inches, Wil Aballe Art Projects

The apparent joviality of much of the art at the Material Art Fair this year was soon subverted by the work of Finnish photographer Annika Rauhala, represented by Helsinki’s MUU Gallery. Through Rauhald’s first video, “Jouha (Riot Police),” the reasons for such over-determined fun that dominated the rest of the fair were exposed: the overarching reality of surveillance and violence in the twenty-first century. The jouha of Helsinki are presented as science fiction characters with their state of the art riot gear and automatic rifles that look like something out of Star Wars. Ironically, however, despite their increasing presence on the streets of Helsinki, Rauhlad told me that there aren’t any riots to speak of and that Finland is the most peaceful country in Europe. As an act of both analysis and revenge, Rauhlad’s subjects are exposed as objects, unable to speak or move unless ordered to, prisoners of their own power. 

Annika Rauhala, Video Still, Jouha (Riot Police), 2017, MUU Gallery

Annika Rauhala, Video Still, Jouha (Riot Police), 2017, MUU Gallery

Annika Rauhala, Video Still, Jouha (Riot Police), 2017, MUU Gallery

Except for the relatively minor earthquakes over the weekend, things have pretty much settled down here in Mexico City--that is, as much as is possible in a mega-metropolis. Since 80% of all of the galleries that participated in both MACO and The Material Art Fair this year were not local, Benito Juarez International Airport must have been a very busy place last week. Both art fairs are growing every year, along with their international representation and, for one week, a city that is still predominantly a monoculture becomes multi-cultural. Nevertheless, despite this influx from the outside world, the inherent mystique of Mexico City deifies any notion of globalized homogenization. Now that the city has become an integral participant in the global exchange of art and ideas, such authenticity could very well be one of the main draws for the international art community in the first place. WM


Karen Moe

Karen Moe is a critical writer, photographer, and performance artist with a degree in Cultural Studies and Feminist Theory. She has been published in such magazines as Border Crossings, Posture, and Revista192. Karen has exhibited and performed across Canada, in the US, and in Mexico. She lives and works in Vancouver, Canada and Mexico City. 

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