High and low culture, the sacred and the profane, the esoteric and the pop collide in the works of Einar and Jamex de la Torre, brothers who have collaborated closely as artists for 20 years.
Although they started working in glass, shaping figurative work that often borrowed themes from their Mexican roots, they have moved toward larger sculpture and installation work, several of which anchor their retrospective, “Borderlandia: Cultural Topography by Einar and Jamex de la Torre” at the Craft and Folk Art Museum.
Their recent work combines Mexican and American culture with a dash of Asian.
“Our work deals a lot with hybridity on so many levels,” says Einar, the younger, more talkative brother, during an exhibition walkthrough just before the opening. Jamex stands to one side, gazing about to make sure things are in place.
Around us are wildly colorful glass figures on pedestals and inside showcases, plus larger works such as their versions of “The Last Judgment” in altar form (“La Reconquista”), an Aztec-inspired calendar made of turning wheels with “hearts” dangling from the sides (“La Belle Epoch”), a pair of electronic totems loaded with found objects (“Tula Frontera Norte” and “Tula Frontera Sur”) and a surrealistic wall mural of bowls and platters piled with food from several cultures (“Pho’Zole”).
In the glass sculpture “Double Happiness K.O.,” a laughing golden Buddha also looks a bit like a sumo wrestler; in “Pho’Zole,” the artists photo-collaged images of a field of the Vietnamese noodle soup and other dishes from overhead.
“Food sometimes is the first step of acculturation,” Jamex observes. “It dawned on us when we were in San Jose in a restaurant eating pho — we realized everyone in the restaurant was Mexican, eating a soup that was somewhat familiar to us.”
Their signature style is to encrust surfaces and cram spaces with objects and images. “Some people say our work is Baroque, and we have been influenced by the Baroque,” says Einar. “When the Spanish came to America, they were in that period, so Latin America was influenced by that period.”
The funhouse quality of the installation is deliberate, says Maryna Hrushetska, the museum director. “We wanted to create an amusement park atmosphere.” The calendar resembles a Ferris wheel, she points out, and the sounds of mechanisms grinding and pinging echo throughout the exhibition galleries.
Hrushetska was introduced to the De la Torres through a PBS documentary, “Craft in America.” A couple of years ago, she saw their work in person at Koplin del Rio Gallery in Culver City, which represents them. Recently, the gallery featured the new glass and multimedia sculpture of the De la Torres in a solo show, “Animexican.” They are also included in an upcoming show at the Getty Research Institute, “Obsidian Mirror-Travels: Refracting Ancient Mexican Art and Archaeology,” opening Nov. 16, and they will be giving a talk at the Craft and Folk Art Museum on Nov. 21.
“They address serious topics, but they never lose their sense of play,” she says. While many objects and ideas may be crammed into their work, she believes that “even if people don’t get what every element is, the joy and the vibrancy comes through.”
The brothers were born in Guadalajara, Mexico — Jamex in 1960 and Einar in 1963 — and moved with their family to Southern California in 1972. “We grew up in a household that had a love of craft work, folk art,” Einar has said in an interview with the artist Gronk.
Both studied at Cal State Long Beach, and they later ran a flame-worked glass business together. Eventually, they concentrated on their own studio practice and began exhibiting at galleries and biennials. Their work has been collected by such institutions as the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash., the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the Kanazu Museum in Kanazu, Japan, and they have completed half a dozen major pieces of public art.
Today, they maintain homes and studios on both sides of the border — in San Diego and near Ensenada, Mexico. They are frequently invited to workshops and residencies at colleges and institutions; there they get to teach others and also get their own glass work done. “We can’t afford to maintain a glass foundry,” says Einar.
The De la Torres talk easily, one seamlessly slipping into the conversation as the other slips out. They acknowledge having different personalities, but they work on everything together and find that it is second nature to do so. “Honestly, sometimes I don’t remember what I did on a piece and what Jamex did,” says Einar.
Certain images recur frequently in their work, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Aztec calendar, and skeletons that reference the Day of the Dead, as well as more lowbrow subjects such as masked Mexican wrestlers, bean pots and tequila bottles. They like kitsch and go on shopping expeditions to buy inexpensive cards, fake money and plastic toys to incorporate into their work.
Many collected items found their way into the 10-foot-tall wheel of “La Belle Epoch,” partly inspired by the Aztec calendar. The De la Torres made it in 2000, when some feared that the turn of the millennium would bring about the end of the world. They found it an opportunity to address issues of native culture versus European culture, while having some fun. They worked both custom-made glass and found objects (small prints, plastic dolls, old telephone dials) into it. The hub of the wheel is the face of a man with his tongue sticking out, an Aztec image, while the glass hearts dangling from the rim reference both the Old World and the New World. The brothers couldn’t resist adding their own joke, however. Each heart is labeled with “the reasons for death,” says Einar. “This one died because she was a virgin, this one because he was a narco, this one died for nada, for nothing.” As the outer wheel turns, the hearts dip through a “blood-like substance” held in a vat below.
“One common theme for our work is the sacrifice,” says Einar. “On the one hand, the Spanish coming over and condemning the rituals of human sacrifice and eating of the flesh — whereas the symbol they were using is of human sacrifice and eating of flesh.”
Perhaps the centerpiece of the exhibition is the elaborate three-part altarpiece “La Reconquista,” freely adapted from “The Last Judgment” by the celebrated Netherlandish painter Hans Memling. This was made using a lenticular process that gives the illusion of 3-D. The De la Torres replaced the religious figures with their own, in an updated parable of greed and power. The seated Christ in the central panel now wears the mask of Quetzalcoatl, a leading Aztec deity, while below him the Archangel Michael, weigher of souls, is played by the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés.
The brothers chuckle as they point out the other characters. Cortés is weighing the worthiness souls on his scale, with a pious Ricky Martin on the side of the good who will go to heaven. Near him, emerging from the ground, are actors Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek. On the left panel are the light-colored, fortunate ones going to heaven — New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson plays St. Peter welcoming the “saved.” The towered gates behind him are labeled “Bank of Amexica,” and ready to enter are Carlos Slim, the wealthy telecommunications magnate, in a bikini top, and President Obama, with a cigarette in his mouth. The right panel features the unfortunate indigenous peoples, sentenced to hell and eternal punishment.
“Having grown up Catholic, we’re not Catholics anymore,” says Jamex. “Right now, if we have a special place for any religion, it would be Buddhism, which happens not to be a religion but a philosophy.”
“When you’re Catholic, everyone else is going to hell,” Einar jumps in. “But when you hear Buddhist masters or lamas, they say this is not the only way to pursue a spiritual search, but this works for me. It’s inclusive, and it seems to be a less invasive way of telling people how to be.”