The 1973 Datsun pickup parked in a gallery at the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico City is no ordinary vehicle. Its doors spin. The bed periscopes up and rotates. The entire front end detaches and twirls like a Transformer doing a baton routine.
The pièce de résistance is the paint job, which includes the iconic green stripe of U.S. Border Patrol vehicles. Except this jacked-up lowrider doesn’t patrol borders. It’s too otherworldly for that. A set of all-cap letters emblazoned on the truck’s bed wryly announce: SPACE PATROL.
It’s a ranfla that is totally cosmica. (Translation from Chicano: It’s a truck that is totally cosmic.)
“Alien Toy,” as the piece is called, is a 1997 work by Los Angeles-based artist Rubén Ortiz Torres, made in collaboration with lowrider hydraulics master Salvador “Chava” Muñoz. It brings together, in singular fashion, various themes that have long preoccupied Ortiz — among them, the ways in which popular culture synthesizes notions of identity.
The piece celebrates the improvised aesthetics of Chicano car culture, while also nodding to Mexican intellectual history. Namely, a famous (and truly zany) essay from 1925 written by philosopher and politician José Vasconcelos. He argued that Mexico’s hybrid European-indigenous-black society, which he dubbed la raza cósmica (the cosmic race), would take humanity into the future by transcending national division.
The lowrider installation also reflects Ortiz’s personal interests in other aspects of the cosmic. The artist, also a noted curator, was born in Mexico City but moved to Southern California to study at CalArts in the early 1990s. When he began to teach professionally, he did so under a work visa that classified him as an “alien of extraordinary ability.”
“I always loved it,” says Ortiz via telephone, repeating the words for effect. “ ‘Alien of extraordinary ability.’ It felt like science fiction.” (Ortiz has since become a U.S. citizen.)
“Alien Toy,” which was last on view at UC Riverside as part of the PST: LA/LA group show “Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in Latin America,” is now part of an engaging survey of Ortiz Torres’ career that will be on view at MUAC until March 15. “Customatismo,” as his show is titled, is one of two exhibitions at the museum that explore the ways ideas and imagery ping pong across the U.S.-Mexico border, between two societies that reflect, distort and assimilate each other’s concepts, in ways that result in curious cultural amalgams.
The second show is an installation by Mexico City-based photographer Yvonne Venegas that was inspired by her own family history. Her parents, José Luis Venegas and Julia Edith Percevault, are founders of Venegas Fotogografía Fina, a prominent Tijuana studio that has, since the 1970s, been the city’s go-to spot for portraiture and event photography.
Yvonne Venegas, along with curators Cuauhtémoc Medina and Jaime González Solís, pored over the studio’s voluminous archives to produce the exhibition “Días únicos: el estudio y su archivo” (Special Days: The Studio and Its Archive). The installation is a study of the photographic techniques of the 1970s. It also unearths the in-between moments that don’t make it into gauzy wedding albums: kitchen staff bearing Champagne, a couple kissing awkwardly before a ruched curtain, a socialite in a lemon yellow gown wielding a cocktail before a bronze of the Venus de Milo.
“There are the finished images — they follow a pattern,” says Venegas. “The mistakes end up in the trash. But there are those images that aren’t quite mistakes — something that happens between those two moments. Some of them get thrown out. Some of them I still find beautiful. They are so ambiguous.”
More significantly, “Días únicos” tells a story about how ideas about photography have traveled across borders.
Venegas’ father studied photography via a correspondence course with the Famous Photographers School in Westport, Conn., an institution run by the noted commercial photographer Victor Keppler. In the late 1960s, the family moved to Los Angeles and José Luis went to work for Alfred & Fabris Studios, where he learned a system of documenting weddings that was based on capturing 25 key moments. It starts with the bride tending to herself before a mirror and ends with the newlyweds driving off at the end of the party.
In 1972, the family returned to Tijuana and opened their own photo studio and deployed these techniques, quickly becoming the eminent party photographers in town.
Venegas’ absorbing museum exhibition serves as a delirious index of the conventions of 20th century wedding photography. It also captures those previously unseen moments in which the mask of a prepared smile has slipped off and subjects are more vulnerable. (If you can’t make it to MUAC, a worthwhile catalog reproduces many of the images. In addition, a portfolio of Venegas’ selected outtakes appear in the fall issue of Aperture magazine, which is devoted to Mexico City artists.)
The installation also captures the cross-border nature of the work. The show is a record of Tijuana as it grew into a thriving border metropolis. It is also a record of Mexican families marrying U.S. ones. It is a U.S. photographic style imported to Mexico, then re-exported back to the U.S. in the form of undeveloped film — which the Venegas developed and printed in California. In the process, José Luis reshaped the nature of event photography in Tijuana.
“He was the first photographer to do color in this way,” says Yvonne Venegas. (José Luis shot with a medium format Hasselblad.) “In the ’70s, in Tijuana, he was really the only one. ... There were the studio photographers who did black and white, or the event photographers who did the 35mm, but there wasn’t one guy who did everything. It made him very popular. It became a status symbol to have my dad’s picture on the wall.”
If Venegas’ installation records the ways in which ideas travel, Ortiz’s exhibition reveals the manic ways in which they ricochet and morph — how a signifier of Mexican revolutionary culture (a peasant in sombrero) can end up decorating a roadside attraction in South Carolina. Or how a fabricator of pre-Columbian knockoffs from Mexico can make a reproduction of an Aztec carving that serves as backdrop to a band of Chicano rappers singing about indigeneity in Los Angeles.
These phenomena are rendered in Ortiz’s engrossing 1995 film, “Fronterilandia / Frontierland,” made in collaboration with L.A. historian and filmmaker Jesse Lerner. The film takes a Cuisinart to images of Mexican and American culture and the ways in which they echo each other: There are real pyramids and fake ones. The voices of real campesinos play over dude-bros wearing sombreros. At a Santa Barbara fiesta, everyone, regardless of race, seems to be decked out in Mexican finery.
“Where there is a noble past or even the illusion of one,” says a narrator, “entrepreneurs, promoters and clientele are on their way.”
Similarly, in a painting from 2014, titled “White Washed America,” Ortiz employs monochrome tones of shimmering turquoise car paint to re-create Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros’ infamous Olvera Street mural, “América Tropical,” from 1931 — the one whitewashed for critiquing U.S. imperialism by showing a dead indigenous peasant. (The mural was uncovered in 2010.)
The piece is a Mexican painter in L.A. re-creating the work of a Mexican painter in L.A. employing the aesthetic language of lowrider paint jobs and Finish Fetish, the school of ’60s Southern California artists whose slick abstract works also were inspired by automotive detailing. In Ortiz’s hands, however, the piece goes beyond surface, with the barely legible image of Siqueiros’ mural materializing like a Mexican ghost in what, from a distance, appears like a “Cool School” abstract plank.
This extensive survey, curated by Mariana Botey, covers more than 30 years of production by the artist, focused primarily on his sculpture, paintings and video. (His extensive photographic portfolios are not represented.) But what is on view provides a fascinating narrative about the ways in which the Mexican and American have regarded each other with both enmity and fascination.
It also highlights the profound intellectual links between the two countries. Ortiz notes that Vasconcelos’ raza cósmica essay was born not in Mexico but in the U.S. “He developed it in San Diego,” he says.
“In fact, the most important text that has been written about Mexican identity has been written in California,” he adds, “‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’ — Octavio Paz was spending time in Los Angeles when he wrote it. And the other person I would include is [the Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores] Magón. The important ideas of the revolution are also written in California. It is here that these ideas of identity are challenged.”
Specifically, they took place in Los Angeles: Los Angeles was a key site for Magón and other intellectual authors of the Mexican Revolution, as explored in the exhibition “Regeneración: Three Generations of Revolutionary Ideology” at the Vincent Price Art Museum late last year.
Ortiz’s show will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in January 2021. But it is not scheduled to come to L.A., where the artist lives and where so many of the ideas he is exploring were formed. And neither, for that matter is Venegas’ installation — despite the fact that she was born in Long Beach and her family’s work was shaped by their time in Los Angeles in the 1960s and ’70s.
This is revealing of the curatorial blind spots at some of L.A.'s contemporary art institutions, who continuously overlook the region’s connection to Mexico. It would be a shame if “America White Washed,” a painting that has L.A. written into its material DNA, for example, ended up in a museum collection outside of the city.
Ortiz’s and Venegas’ exhibitions — along with ongoing shows by L.A.'s Rafa Esparza and Tijuana’s Marcos Ramirez ERRE at MASS MoCA — mark one of the great social and political dialogues of our era: the border and the reckoning around our region’s hybrid identities. These ideas deserve greater visibility in Los Angeles.
Recent media coverage has made much froth of the fact that L.A.'s art scene is going “international.” These exhibitions show that it always has been.
Where: Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC), Insurgentes Sur 3000, Centro Cultural Universitario, Coyoacán, Mexico City
When: Through March 15, 2020
Where: Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo, Insurgentes Sur 3000, Centro Cultural Universitario, Coyoacán
When: Through Jan. 12