ART REVIEW : Mexico's Old-Style Contemporaries

TIMES ART CRITIC

The plethora of special exhibitions mounted as adjuncts to the splashy extravaganza "Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries" began in September with a provocative display at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Titled "The Perennial Illusion of a Vulnerable Principle: Another Mexican Art," its focus on very recent painting, sculpture and video art by younger artists upended expectations concerning recent work from Mexico.

Now, as one of the final presentations of the surrounding festival, the Santa Monica Museum of Art has opened "Aspects of Contemporary Mexican Painting" (through March 5). If you had wondered just what types of pale and reticent forms the artists in the Pasadena show had set themselves against, you will find them in Santa Monica in some abundance (there are 61 paintings).

The principal aspect of contemporary Mexican painting on view is the one that keeps trying to inject a spark of life into the icy corpse of School of Paris art. For the most part, alas, the Frankensteinian body just lays there, refusing to get up and dance.

"Aspects of Contemporary Mexican Painting" was organized by the Americas Society of New York, where it had its debut 15 months ago. Its curator is New York University professor Edward J. Sullivan, who also assisted in the inaugural exhibition of 1980s painting in the Americas, with which the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterrey, Mexico, opened its doors last summer. Needless to say, there's a good bit of overlap in the art and artists selected for these two shows.

More significantly, all nine of the artists in Santa Monica have occasionally or regularly shown at one (or both) of two commercial galleries: Galeria O.M.R. in Mexico City and Galeria Arte Actual in Monterrey. The overlap shows how relatively small and inbred the contemporary art scene in Mexico remains. Given the rather narrow range of work on view, it also suggests how these two galleries have something of a lock on current Mexican painting.

The paintings of Oaxaca-born artist Rodolfo Morales are the touchstone of the show. A generation older than the rest--he was born in 1925, the others between 1947 and 1958--Morales worked in obscurity until 1975, when he was anointed by fellow Oaxacan Rufino Tamayo as "a breath of fresh air in Mexican painting."

In truth, not only is Morales' painterly air not fresh, it exudes much of the staleness that had enveloped Tamayo's own art. Like the famous elder artist's, Morales' pictures also seamlessly blend traditional folk motifs with devices familiar from modern European easel painting: Surrealist dream-space, flattening of form, Expressionist color, literal depiction of imaginative scenes and so on.

Morales has a facile design sense and a sure gift for composition, but his art is fenced in by its academic politeness and sweet provincial pietism. This academic angle is what makes Morales' art the touchstone for the show.

He spent five years (1948-53) studying at Mexico City's Academia de San Carlos, which is where Tamayo also had studied, and he taught drawing in prep schools for the next three decades. "Aspects of Contemporary Painting in Mexico" means to suggest a specific legacy, which begins with the turn-of-the-century generation of Tamayo, passes the baton to Morales and, finally, hands off to the postwar youngsters.

A commitment to traditions of European Modernism is everywhere to be seen in the Santa Monica show: Front and center in the paintings of Alejandro Colunga, Arturo Marty, Ismael Vargas, Dulce Maria Nunez, Rocio Maldonado and Georgina Quintana are stylistic riffs familiar from Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet, Oskar Kokoschka, assorted Fauves and numerous other Modern masters. Most important is an Expressionist emphasis on the artist's relationship to painting, rather than to painting's relationship to the world.

A few of the artists--Nunez, Maldonado and Julio Galan--rummage through the history of style, picking and choosing what they need in an ostensibly appropriationist manner, abutting seemingly contradictory elements against one another. That they do so in painting, that their work (like all the others) is figurative, and that the show surveys the 1980s (the earliest dates from 1982) all conspires to put a curatorially undeclared but nonetheless obvious spin on things: Although the term is never used, Neo-Expressionism is the glue holding together the disparate work in the exhibition.

Neo-Expressionism was the internationalist success d'estime of 1980s painting. Certainly, Mexican Neo-Expressionism is seen to have issued forth from a history quite different from those that guided its German, Italian and American counterparts. Edward Sullivan insists in the accompanying catalogue that these paintings mark a sudden, decisive break with the past; he also writes that these painters are not unaware of their nation's cultural history. In a way, you could say that reborn in this work is a particular strain of Mexican art that has long been repressed.

The Escuela Mexicana --the so-called "Mexican School" of Modernist easel painting that flourished between the 1920s and the 1940s, and that is in fact simply a derivative branch of the internationally dominant School of Paris--had long since been overshadowed by the politically trenchant mural painting of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. When their murals proved influential to the formation of American Abstract Expressionism, the fate of the Mexican School was sealed. It sank from view.

"Aspects of Contemporary Mexican Painting" means to revive the defunct genre as a potent source. In a less precise (but no less emphatic) way, so does the series of three exhibitions mounted this fall at Parallel Project Gallery, a coalition of Mexican galleries (with ties to both O.M.R and Arte Actual) that has set up temporary shop in Santa Monica during the run of the big "Splendors" extravaganza.

Their current group presentation of sculpture--"A New Antiquity of Form"--features work by Tamayo and others associated with the Escuela Mexicana , as well as by Alejandro Colunga and other younger artists. It in fact represents an old, academic antiquity of form merely recycled for the present day.

Tamayo had suffered a famously bitter break with the muralists, who had joined the avant-garde artists of revolutionary Russia in renouncing easel painting in the 1920s. The muralists went on to become the standard for Mexican Modernism, but Tamayo, who left for New York and Paris, outlived them all (he died just this year).

In the scenario played out at the Santa Monica Museum and, more haphazardly, at the Parallel Project Gallery, Tamayo is given a newly heightened position of prominence. But it's one that neither his academically conservative paintings nor those of most of the younger generations of "Mexican Neo-Expressionists" can sustain.

The obsessively personal colored drawings of Nahum B. Zenil--blunt meditations on the psychological trauma of being a gay man in a culture socially, politically and religiously hostile--do hold attention. And Galan is capable of a disorienting, aromatic dreaminess (although the selection here is fairly weak). But none is as compelling as what we saw in September in the adventurous Pasadena show.

* "Aspects of Contemporary Mexican Painting," Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2437 Main St., (310) 399-0433, through March 5. Closed Mon. and Tues.

* "A New Antiquity of Form," Parallel Project Gallery, 1634 17th St., Santa Monica, (310) 399-7024, through Dec. 17. Closed Sun. and Mon.

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