La Reconquista at MACLA Recalls the Last Judgment with a New World Twist

By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

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The de la Torres’ altar, La Reconquista, at MACLA

It was around thirteen years ago that the de la Torres first arrived at MACLA to install their first San Jose exhibition. From slides sent in advance, then Director Jaime Alvarado, and all of us on the Artist Selection Committee were excited to meet these unconventional Latino artists. If glass art conjures up exquisite Venetian vessels or Chihuly-like chandeliers, this was not that. For all the history of glass art as a medium of delicate, beautiful craft, the de la Torre glass sculpture had content! It was funky and bold, informed by both rasquache and history. There was endless cultural commentary paired with arbitrary insertions of the ridiculous. It eagerly mixed with such low brow materials as styrofoam, cast-off parts of wood furniture or metal appliances, plastic toys, fake fur in atrocious plastic colors, beer bottles and many small dollar-store discoveries representing bad taste and consumer culture. Their art was as wild and iconoclastic as it promised to be and the brothers, Jamex and Einar, did not disappoint either. They were sharp, well-informed, thinking artists, with a wicked sense of humor. Born in Guadalajara and educated at Long Beach State, with citizenship and residences on both sides of the border, they introduced us to an endless parody of cross-border politics, gender politics, politics and government in general, consumer culture, cultural icons, the precious Gods of MesoAmerican history, art history in general, and the Catholic religion. Nothing was or is sacred with the de la Torres.

Our excitement quickly turned to sadness and outrage when an individual living on the streets of downtown San Jose, well known for the religious tracts he disseminated along South First Street, managed to single-handedly wreck the whole show. This one-time graphic design student, allegedly high on drugs, broke through the glass doors at the front of the gallery, ripped the crash bar off the door and used it as tool of destruction to break all the glass elements in the sculptural works that lined the walls and stood throughout the gallery. The exhibition had not even been lit, and the public never had the chance to see it in more than swept up heaps of broken glass, bent metal and miscellaneous remnants. The perpetrator of the horrid act was ostensibly offended by the de la Torres’ irreverent use of Christian symbols among other affronts embodied in their work. Much was made of his offence in the context of freedom of speech for artists. I always felt that the matter dealt more with the tragedy of brain damage to individuals using mind-altering substances.

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In the SJSU hot shop, the de la Torres return as guest artists.

So, in spite of the loss of a great deal of their body of work early in their career, the de la Torres developed a very particular relationship to San Jose. They have returned to work as guest artists in the glass program at San Jose State repeatedly, donated annually to the MACLA Benefit Auction and have shown at MACLA in other exhibitions many times.

Given the de la Torre brothers’ long history with MACLA in San Jose, it is fitting that Director Anjee Helstrup commissioned them to create a large installation for the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the institution. Funded by an NEA grant, the focal point of the exhibition is the life-sized altar, La Reconquista, taking up nearly half the gallery. There are also the blown glass figurative sculptures and mandalas for which they are known and another large installation entitled Pho-zole, created originally for the Orange County Museum in Southern California. Once again, the brothers bring their incisive observations on human folly, politically incorrect play with icons of ethnic and religious origin, and the wildly colorful baroque forms that make their shows a riot of visual stimuli.

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A dizzying array of noodle soups with innumerable condiments emerge from the walls in the de la Torres’ installation Pho-zole. (detail)

Pho-zole is a visual assault of orbs that plays with cross-cultural culinary rituals. Pho — Vietnamese noodles — and pozole — the Mexican pork and grits stew — are sources for the name of the installation, but the real emphasis is on that universal, noodle soup. While dining at Tun Kee noodles on William Street in San Jose, the de la Torres could not help but notice that there were probably more Mexicans indulging in noodles than members of the Asian community for which the menu was targeted.

For Pho-zole the brothers covered two walls with giant photographic blowups of endless plates of noodles and bowls of noodle soup. On top of that, more three-dimensional bowls are attached. Embedded in resin in each bowl are the requisite noodles along with other wacky detritus of the fast food restaurant industry, references to eating and ritual, and unexplained surprises. Resin hands full of beans (referring to “beaners”), reach out of the bowls. Screws, rubber bands, plastic bride & groom dolls, plastic insects, tiny Christ figures and other such miniatures season the soup. In the center of each wall a large circle filled with empty white plates is the screen upon which an ongoing commentary is projected. Friends of the de la Torres, all Asian, some employed in the fast food industry, swirl around the round screens as they discuss issues of food. They contemplate digestion, food fetishes and rituals for teaching children to eat. An overwhelming sense of fullness hits us with the orange tints of hot sauce in the broth and memories of orange plastic upholstered seats.

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The de la Torres’ Tri Tri Pas is blown glass and mixed media.

Blown glass figures that represent gods or saints or the Pope are staples of the de la Torres’ work. With something like adolescent glee, they depict such dignitaries as brightly colored, blobby, in-the-buff figures reenacting historic and symbolic incidents. Eggs Benedict is a wall relief in which the glass actors recall a narrative of conquest and indoctrination, surrounded by a metallic greca from motifs found in MesoAmerican ceremonial sites. The Pope is a giant nearly naked, hatchet-wielding, pig-headed enforcer of the Catholic doctrine of natural birth control (i.e. none), who seems to be liberating endangered sperm that already have little baby faces. He stands ferociously on a mighty sword of divine justice. He has a pair of lily-white hands emerging from his back that function as wings. A pair of semi-clad natives flee the scene, carrying what looks like a severed organ.

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This blue Guey appears to be sipping the elixer of his heart.

There are several of the de la Torre’s brightly colored blown glass individual figures in this show. These are wonderfully irreverent medium sized sculptures that brighten a room and evoke laughter. Day of the Dead sugar skull head bands that bear their names inevitably refer to some sort of double entendre and are accessible to those that speak Spanish or know a little Mexican slang. Tri Tri Pas is a greenish man with a green chile, marching forward with his intestines (tripas) flowing out of his belly onto a blue platter. Another Guey is a blue guy, beautifully decked out in yellow and green ornamentation, consuming beer that appears to flow from a recently extracted heart — his own?

The main focus of the exhibition, La Reconquista, is built upon an enlarged image of a Last Judgment altar painting appropriated from Hans Memling. The de la Torre version stands front and center in a baroque church (Oaxacan, in fact) that has been photographically applied on large adhesive panels to the walls of the gallery. The heads of the smiling little ceramic figures of the ancient Huastec period, used by the de la Torres in many of their works, appear in this show as cast glass fragments all over the walls of the church. Somehow, in the hands of the de la Torres, they assume the face of Alfred E. Neuman. Subtly inserted into the house of worship, on columns and next to the portraits of the Saints, are ads for Pan Bimbo, Coca Cola and the confections of Tia Rosa. Other motifs that are repeated around the brightly gilt altar seem to refer to a conquest by force — guns, and the ill fates of history — the ubiquitous dice, or intoxication — the introduction of beer to the culture. In lower niches of the altar the giant Olmec heads weep.

Within the three panel altar painting, the faces of those ascending to Heaven, as well as those damned to Hell, have been subjected to a lot of photoshopping and swapping of heads, blown up onto a multi-layered lenticular plastic that allows the image to shift and change, and thereby be thrust abruptly into a devilish and delightful contemporary low brow context. Somehow, I had hoped to find all the injustices of history rectified in the Altar of the Reconquista, as executed by the de la Torres. I expected to see the perpetrators of exploitation, violence, raciscm, nepotism, fraud, corruption, conceit, superficiality, indifference, etc. all condemned to the eternal fire. But, alas, no! I now realize that would have been out of character and possibly not nearly as much fun as revisiting the unfortunate and eternally repeating outcome of Mexico’s many revolutions.

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Who enters the gates to Heaven? In the left panel of the Altar de la Reconquista, James and Einar de la Torre affirm that the rules have not changed.

In the madly cynical view of the de la Torres, the entrance to Heaven, the left panel of the altar, is through the front door of the Bank of America (not the Banco de Mexico where funds could potentially earn more but be insecure). And who are the chosen ones ascending the steps to Heaven? A lot of light skinned entertainers such as James Olmos, Juan Gabriel, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez and Pedro Infante. Light skinned soccer players are also admitted, as are individuals such as the annoying but beloved comic, el Chavo del Ocho. Even Barak Obama, smoking a cigarette, and Sonia Sotomayor, now wealthy power brokers, are accepted. Bill Richardson, Mexican-American par excellence, is the Bishop and greeter at the foot of the steps. The left panel is definitely the most fun to engage. The head of the muscular Spanish actor, Javier Bardem, attached to one of Hans Memling’s emaciated little bodies is very funny. Viewers have a great time jostling each other to get a view of certain heads from two angles to see if they become someone else as the lenticular view shifts. In this game, it helps to know Mexican popular culture or at least watch a lot of soccer games on the Mexican cable channels.

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Center panel of the de la Torres’ La Reconquista

The center panel of the altar is the site of Christ passing judgment. He floats majestically above the chaos, peering through a mask of Quetzalcoatl, “the Feathered Serpent”, priest-god of learning and the arts whose prophesied return was to confound the otherwise unconquerable Aztec empire when the people saw Hernan Cortez on horseback and mistook him for Quetzalcoatl. (How many times can we be fooled?) At his sides, the angels and saints assist, but are revealed once again to be the tormentors of history: among others, Salinas de Gortari, Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderon, Christina Aguilar (huh?) and, wait, Emiliano Zapata? I want to read Zapata’s appearance as the false promise of true revolution. Einar de la Torre cautions me, “Erin, don’t get too logical”.

Anyway, below the great panel of judges and advisors are my favorite scenes in the whole altar. Here we see the skinny naked bodies of Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayak, as they sink into holes in the earth. The black demons are pitchforking the unredeemable sinners off to the right. Hugo Sanchez, Mexican soccer star and one-time coach of the Mexican National Team, is pulled toward heaven from the white skinned side of his body by the angelic Andres Guardado, and toward hell, from the dark skinned side of his body by the black demon, Chautemoc Blanco. (Ironic name.) This is all very esoteric if you don’t follow Mexican soccer, but in a nutshell, it has to do with soccer stars from the rank and file of Mexico’s mestizo culture vs. players who come from the white privileged classes in Mexico City, and those who see themselves ascending from below to above as their career fortunes blossom. Also in this area of the altar, the de la Torres have inserted La Malinche, a reference to one of their favorite themes: “malinchismo”. History lesson: La Malinche was the native lover/translator/assistant to Hern√°n Cortez. Her union with the Spaniard was the historic beginning of the Mestizo culture of modern Mexico, but she has never been forgiven and to this day to be a Malinche is to be a traitor. The de la Torres refer to their ongoing fascination with the “self-loathing” and ambivalence Mexicans feel about their mixed race culture.

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In the de la Torres’ version of the Last Judgement, the damned are thrown into the flames from the heights of of the MesoAmerican pyramid, el Taj√≠n.

Finally, within the right hand panel we see the ultimate demise of the damned. Tumbling from the platforms of the temple of el Tajín, are the melting and burning bodies of the unrepentant native tribes of MesoAmerica. They defiantly wear their masks of pride, cultural history and personal identity. In a Hieronymus Bosch touch, the de la Torres have given their bodies fiery torches exiting from the anus.

When the de la Torres get serious and talk about their art, it becomes obvious that the stimulus for many of their associations and juxtapositions are those constant reminders of the dominance of the European culture in the economics, traditions and history of modern Mexico. In spite of the highly visible mixed race population of Mexico, it takes a lot of traveling, reading, research and digging to get next to what is left of the preCortesian culture. The de la Torres find a way to keep those historic elements alive and topical. Somewhat less obvious is their obsession with television, incessant promoters of vapid telenovelas, beer and white entertainers, also a target because of the wealth it represents and its monopoly on the representation of cultural narratives. The Catholic Church – one of the de la Torres favorite subjects – is still a widely reviled dictator of a hierarchy of spiritual practices and unequal gender norms, and seen as the source of empty lip service to practices of economic and social equality. International economic blunders, the violence of the drug cartels, and immigration are more issues that the de la Torres, living on the border, are exposed to directly and incorporate into their art. Finally, an ever-present bombardment of messages promoting a consumer culture – from all sides – provides rich material for their rasquache and another cultural commentary. Somehow their onslaught of raw visuals and socio-political critique manages to make us laugh and evoke our desires for social justice at the same time.

Arriving at MACLA on a quiet Saturday morning, I intercepted Bonnie and Lee Stone who speak only a little Spanish, but energetically support socially provocative artforms. They were leaving the gallery with large grins and gave the show a “thumbs up”. I had wondered if the Mexican in-jokes and play with language rendered the work inscrutable. Apparently not. What did they like? Lee: “The craftsmanship.” Bonnie: “The historical references. The exhibition really recalls the enormous devastation of cultures throughout two continents that occurred as a result of ‘The Conquest’ “.

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