Selections from the Mexican Museum Delight with the Many Faces of Mexican Art

By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

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Rodolfo Morales’ Untitled 1989 oil, 71.5 x 99″, a signature painting: The celebration of Oaxacan women is a major theme in his work.

All the abundant colors from the pastels to the primaries, and the magnificent phases of Mexican arts, from the pre-Columbian to the contemporary — all are represented in a tantalizing and exquisite selection of works form the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, now on exhibition at the Palo Alto Art Center. For “Treasures from the Mexican Museum: A Spirited Legacy”, curator Signe Mayfield has chosen a broad selection works whose creators come from the anonymity of the early pre-conquest cultures up to the current diaspora of the Latino throughout the Americas and the USA in particular. Chicanos and Mexican Americans from the Bay Area are an important part of the show. Some of Mexico’s most culturally significant and important Modern artists are represented by some of their most impressive works. Mayfield has organized the selections for this exhibition into five thematic groupings: Emblems of Spirituality, Iconic Portraiture & the Individual, Art of the Fantastic, Material Presence: Chicano/a Art, and Memories of the Community. She develops the historical context for each in an informative and beautifully printed brochure. The viewer cannot help but be seduced by the great history, the passion, sentiment, and technical accomplishment of the artists of Mexican heritage.

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Anonymous Pre-Conquest redware and burnished blackware in vessels and animal effigies are some of the earliest selections from the collection of the Mexican Museum.

One great example is the large painting, Untitled/Sin Titulo, by Oaxacan artist Rodolfo Morales, in which Morales’ famous female actors preside over a typical central plaza of the pueblo. Oaxaca is hailed for the strength and charisma of its indigenous women, and Morales celebrates their ubiquitous presence. Here, the women guide the spiritual energy that springs from the heavens and the ancestors. They are guardians of the plaza, presiding with watchful eyes over the streets at night. They fly, like angels in formation, around the town to ensure peace and tranquility. Morales’ women inhabit every corner and aspect of civic life from gossip, rituals of mourning, to fashion and commerce. His style is also very integrated into the figurative traditions of Oaxacan artists, many of which can be easily traced to Rufino Tamayo.

Other Mexican greats in the exhibition are Rufino Tamayo himself, represented by a marvelous lithograph, Untitled (Dog), and another one of the important second generation Oaxacans, Francisco Toledo. Toledo’s color lithograph Caballos, follows in the tradition of heralding the animals for their integral roles in the ancestral, rural and creation myths of Oaxacan culture. Not unlike the Greeks, Toledo loves the lusty anecdotes that provide historical wisdom, burlesque human follies and teach mores to younger generations.

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Alejandro Colunga’s Mago Cantado

Guadalajara artist Alejandro Colunga is represented by his distinct style of figurative abstraction in his large acrylic on canvas. His expressionistic fields contain rhythmic repetitions of references to the costumes, masks, decorations and mysterious rituals of the Catholic church and religious holidays that captivated him as a child. Jose Luis Cuevas is another figurative master whose style has greatly influenced subsequent generations. His lithograph, Poets in the Dining Room, 1972, is included in the show.

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Images of Frida by Alfredo Arreguín

The important Seattle artist, Alfredo Arregu√≠n, whose portraits of iconic heroes of the Mexican cultural narrative are embedded in the complex layers of decorative patterning from many of the traditions of crafts and ceramic painting. Other figures, animals, plant forms, abstract patterns, and secondary dramas can be discerned in this weave of colors and textures. Arregu√≠n’s 1977 oil, Images of Frida, is built upon a geometric rectangle within a larger rectangle where bands of plants patterns float in and out of focus. In the center are mirror images of Frida’s head, with the eyebrows most visible, that are reflected even more faintly in another mirror image, upside down, below. The entire surface of the painting shimmers as if electrified, with partial imagery and areas popping to the surface and retreating.

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Resbalado by John Valadez, Pastel on Paper

One of my favorite Latino figurative artists is the Los Angeles-based John Valadez. His marvelous large pastel on paper, entitled Resbalado, features an aerial view of a cloudbank slipping over the Southern US desert. In the sky, on top of the cloudbank, a powerful bull of mammoth proportions charges forward behind the leading edge of the overcast as if he were coming ashore in the surf. A mysterious cloud or smoke column rises from the earth below. Valadez offers a fantastic realism that frequently contains omens, allegories and mysteries relevant to contemporary cultural controversy.

A lovely 1930 gouache, Tehuana, by Miguel Covarrubias displays his graceful style with the figure and celebrates life of the early 20th C in Mexico. In the Mexican Museum’s collection we also see many of the important lithographs by such major artists as David Alfaro Siqueiros and Leopoldo Mendoza that were printed in the historic Taller Grafica Popular. They recall the great epoch of populist activism, social realism and early 20th C political turmoil that was captured in Mexican printmaking. To this day, the tradition of prints as a vehicle of dissemination of social messages persists in Mexico.

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Mano Poderosa, 1992, oil on galvanized steel by Enrique Chagoya

Enrique Chagoya, familiar to art viewers in the Bay Area, is represented by one of his political satires in the form of allegorical Mexican iconography mixed with references to abuses by international power conglomerates and American business interests. In the right hand panel of The Powerful Hand/ La Mano Poderosa, his 1992 acrylic painting on galvanized steel, the wounded Mano Poderoso turns the ocean red as it bleeds into the polluted waters, and Minnie Mouse is up to her neck in the soup (Minnie and Mickey are favorite Chagoya stand-ins for North American foolishness), and she blithely continues her old ways amidst rising waters. The left panel shows the flayed hand of Xipe Totec, God of Spring and renewal, suggesting that we may have to pay a painful price for the recapture of our spoiled environment.

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Gustavo Rivera’s 1991 Carrusel de Sombras

Esther Hernandez, Carmen Lomas Garza and Gustavo Ramos Rivera also handsomely represent the local Mexican-American talent that is in the collection. Ramos Rivera’s playful, yet consummate abstract paintings in bold colors are always an energizing force. Carmen Lomas Garza charms us with her highly detailed glimpses into the villages, homes and family rituals that are so integral to the Mexican culture. Esther Hernandez takes a revolutionary risk when she poses a graphic, combative Virgin de Guadalupe in the defense of Chicanos. It is quite outside of the singular pious, etherial, other-worldly depiction that Mexican Catholics have come to assume to be the norm, if not the only approved version of their virgin.

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Polychrome wood figures by Manuel Jimenez are part of the collections contemporary crafts.

This exhibition is dominated by the pictorial works, yet there are many lovely examples of historic crafts and folk art from a wide range of historic periods.
The Palo Alto Art Center’s exhibition offers an unusual opportunity for viewers to see works that have been in storage since the Mexican Museum closed in 2006. Hopefully, this exhibition will generate, or reinvigorate interest for this important collection. The Board of The Mexican Museum is trying to relaunch efforts to carry through earlier plans for a new building on Jessie Street in the Yerba Buena Complex in San Francisco. Signe Mayfield tells us, “The Palo Alto Art Center and The Mexican Museum are both trying to galvanize their audiences for their respective building projects. “Treasures from The Mexican Museum: A Spirited Legacy” is a creative partnership in a difficult economic time that is promising for both institutions.”

If your interest in the wealth and breadth of Mexican art has been piqued, then surely a visit to the great Museums of Mexico City, Oaxaca and Guadaljara is in order in the meantime! This is a collection of art that should get you hooked.

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