PST, A to Z: “MEX/LA” at the Museum of Latin American Art
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Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
Responding to my first PST, A to Z post Armando Baeza wrote, “CALL IT ‘ART BY CHICANOS’ AND IT MAY CLARIFY THINGS.” I assume he was referring to my claim that I was looking forward to learning more about “Los Angeles’ role in the Mexican avant-garde.” I probably should’ve just mentioned “MEX/LA” by name. (There are at least three other Pacific Standard Time shows focused on “Chicano” art.) But as it turns out, neither of us got it quite right.
“MEX/LA” is not a show of art by Chicanos, and it is not a show about the Mexican avant-garde, although it includes works that fit both of those descriptions. Rather, it is a show about what the curators—artist Rubén Ortiz-Torres and scholar Jesse Lerner—call “Mexicanidad,” or “Mexican-ness.” To that end, it explores both the work of Mexican artists who made art in L.A. (not all of whom would identify as Chicano) and that of artists (Chicanos and others) who lived in Los Angeles and were influenced by Mexican culture or tried to interpret it for U.S. audiences.
As you can see, it’s a complex topic, but that is in large part the point of the show. Stretching the time frame of Pacific Standard Time (1945-1980) back to 1930 and forward to 1985, it begins with the Mexican muralists, in particular David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, who both created iconic, influential works in Southern California in the 1930s. A particularly nice sequence pairs Orozco’s drawings for his “Prometheus” mural at Pomona College with studies by Italian-born artist Rico Lebrun for his “Genesis” mural, also at Pomona. Although Lebrun’s work was created in the 1960s and is far more abstract, the influence of Orozco’s twisting, muscular forms is clear.
The show also touches on the emergence of “Mexican” aesthetics in architecture, design, and popular culture, including a “Day of the Dead” video by Ray and Charles Eames, a suite of beautifully rounded chairs by British-born designer and artist Po Shun Leong, and cartoons and individual cells from Disney animations.
Some of these interpretations are elegant, others are kitschy and stereotypical, but none are more fascinating than the work of Robert B. Stacy-Judd, a British-born architect inspired by ancient Mayan art. His detailed drawings of buildings with ornate, temple-like facades are a near hallucinogenic blend of hieroglyphic motifs, Art Deco, and Hollywood theatrics. He also created fantastical not-quite-history paintings. “Destruction of Atlantis” from 1936 imagines the Mayans in ornate wooden boats on a roiling sea. Behind, a majestic city crumbles as a volcano spews highly stylized “Mayan” swirls of lava into the sky. Stacy-Judd might be dismissed as an inveterate old romantic, but his love for all things Mayan is no less reductive than more offensive stereotypes, like the cartoon mouse, Speedy Gonzalez. In one room, a monitor playing the Warner Brothers cartoons from the 1950s and 1960s is paired with the subdued, taut paintings of Mexican artist Alfredo Ramos Martínez from the 1940s. The contrast between the eternally cheeky, sombrero-clad mouse and Martínez’s heart-breaking, yet rigorously composed scenes of men trussed with ropes or gathered in protest (painted, by the way, on the classified pages of the Los Angeles Times) sums up the poles of the exhibition.
Mexico entered the modern imagination in a variety of ways—some more troubling than others—and the show also includes a range of more recent works by Chicano artists, many of whom critique and redefine these images. However, “MEX/LA’s” chief contribution is in helping to shift the dialogue around race and art away from the identities of the artists and toward a larger assessment of the boundaries of nation and culture that limit, define, or inspire us all.
Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-1689, through Jan. 29. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. www.molaa.org