Feeling Pull of Mexico's Past in 'Espiritu' : Art review: Compelling work of 11 modern-day artists is featured, but history's clash of cultures hovers in the background.


When Surrealist patriarch Andre Breton visited Mexico in 1938, he declared it the "Surrealist place par excellence," what with its dramatic terrain and rich mixture of races and native and imported religions. It probably didn't hurt that one of Breton's hosts was painter Frida Kahlo, whose mesmerizing self-portraits fusing pain and beauty have become emblematic of Mexican Surrealism.

Breton's pronouncement and Kahlo's legacy both hang heavily over "Espiritu," a compelling show of 11 contemporary Mexican artists at the California Center for the Arts Museum in Escondido. In Julio Galan's "Retrato de Luisa" (Portrait of Luisa), the Surrealists' preferred state of creativity--a dream trance--gets its sensuous, enigmatic due. And Monica Castillo comes across as a latter-day Kahlo in her meticulously painted "Autorretratos con sen~as particulares" (Self-Portraits With Identifying Marks). Each of the 16 faces on the canvas bears a different sign of suffering or symbol of martyrdom, from tears to scars to blood.

In focusing on spiritual aspects of recent Mexican art, the show necessarily centers on the collision between indigenous cultures and Spanish-sent Catholicism. In one of the more obvious but effective interpretations of this meeting, Dulce Maria Nun~ez recasts the traditional image of the virgin and child in her painting of a small, Europeanized virgin in the lap of a stone-carved pre-Hispanic god. Others also start from traditional Christian iconography and go from there, personalizing (Nahum Zenil's self-portraits in various priestly guises) and politicizing (German Venegas' powerful wood-carved deposition featuring Emiliano Zapata as the sacrificed martyr).

Inevitably, the hierarchic order of Catholicism comes up against the more fluid interpenetration of life, death and spirit as conceptualized by Mexico's indigenous cultures. No image sparks with that tension more than Graciela Iturbide's photograph "Muerte novia" (Death Bride), in which a woman presents herself classically adorned in nuptial whites while also wearing a smiling skull mask. Disjunction is as central to the art here as it is to any country with a colonized past, and it gives the show its provocative, Surrealist edge.

Resonances between the 11 artists abound, but museum director Reesey Shaw, curator of the exhibition, has not forced her hand. Personal, idiosyncratic vocabularies are encouraged, and to that end, she has dedicated a separate gallery to Iturbide's photographs and another to Galan's jarring, seductive paintings. Though the artists in the show were born over a span of nearly 40 years (1925-61), Shaw has narrowed the generational divide by concentrating on representational work, mostly painting, addressing fundamental issues of origin, belief and ritual practice. Other artists included are Alfredo Castan~eda, Elena Climent, Rodolfo Morales, Georgina Quintana and Adolfo Riestra.

* "Espiritu," California Center for the Arts Museum, 340 N. Escondido Blvd., Escondido. (619) 738-4170. Through Jan. 14. A participatory installation by Eloy Tarcisio will be added to the show beginning Nov. 1.

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