One of the many casualties of the earthquake that hit Mexico City in 1985 was the folk art known as fotoescultura, or photo-sculpture. Before the earthquake, a small group of artisans skilled in transforming beloved photographic portraits into handmade sculptural keepsakes occupied the same building on Donceles Street in the historic center of the city. After the earthquake destroyed the building, according to Rose Shoshana, owner of Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, almost all of the practitioners closed up shop.
One who continued is Bruno Eslava, 84, and his handiwork is now on display in an exhibition at Rose Gallery featuring images of and by British artist Martin Parr. A celebrated photojournalist, conceptual photographer and author with nearly 50 books to his name, Parr, 58, gets top billing for the show, called “All Things Parr.”
And Parr’s (sometimes smiling) face beams from all walls of the gallery, as his ongoing series of “autoportraits” or self-portraits (many of which are taken in exotic portrait studios with local props and costumes) have become the basis for the photo-sculptures on view as well as some limited-edition porcelain plates, cigars and tea towels in a display case for sale.
But Parr’s role in this show is not one of creator as much as collaborator and talent scout. He is rather wittily and winkingly using his own art-world celebrity to bring attention to this little-known art form.
“I’m not that narcissistic, really,” said Parr, surrounded by his own image on a visit to the gallery earlier this month. “This is really a celebration of this disappearing art form. When Bruno dies, the tradition will die with him.” (Eslava, who is still based in Mexico City, did not make it out for the gallery opening.)
Or, as Shoshana puts it, “We searched high and low, and as far as we know, Bruno Eslava is the only artist alive doing this kind of work today.” She says the art of transforming a photographic portrait into a colorful object of devotion became popular in the 1930s and enjoyed its heyday in the following decades.
“In the 1950s and ‘60s, most Mexican families would not have a camera, so just to have an image taken of your wife or beloved would be a very big event,” Parr adds, noting that the resulting photograph, in one form or another, would often take center stage on a mantelpiece. “It’s not like now, where everyone has a camera and Facebook pictures are being taken left, right and center.”
To make a fotoescultura, an artist would typically mount a black-and-white photograph on a wood sculpture, which had been hand-carved and painted vibrantly to match the figure photographed. The photo itself would then be hand-colored as well. The final step involves adding decorative touches such as real jewelry or lace or an actual hat, giving it the kind of presence you’d expect of an object of devotion.
For this show, Shoshana added many of the decorative touches — a brooch here, some beads there — just one sign that her involvement goes beyond the usual art-dealer role. She had the idea for the show two years ago when Parr was in Los Angeles for an exhibition at the gallery, Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide was in town for her show at the Getty, and they all started talking about the fotoescultura tradition. “I’ve always wanted to show Martin’s autoportraits series, and this seemed like an interesting way to do it,” she explains.
She soon reached out to Eslava to have him make roughly two dozen examples, 15 of which are now on show. Parr, a devoted collector of postcards, photo books and watches with Saddam Hussein’s image (among other EBay finds), owns up to having snagged five of these for himself.
The show does not have a standard catalog, but Shoshana has painstakingly made a limited-edition book by hand, scrapbook-style. It begins with tintypes as a way of situating the project in the material history of photography. As she writes in the book, she sees fotoescultura as part of a larger ritual of “transforming photographs into objects of veneration, much like early 19th-century photo-lockets or beautifully encased daguerreotypes which are passed down through generations as family heirlooms.”
‘All Things Parr’
Where: Rose Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica
When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tues-Sat. Through Jan. 29
Information: (310) 264-8440 or https://www.rosegallery.net