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Artist Daniel Lezama, Mexico's provocateur

Artist Daniel Lezama, Mexico's provocateur
CONTROVERSIAL: Daniel Lezama's challenging depictions of religious icons and sordid interactions are featured in a new solo exhibit. (Sarah Meghan Lee, xx)
WHICH adjective best fits the work of painter Daniel Lezama?

Alluring? Repellent? Classical? Irreverent? Misunderstood?

While critics extol his daring and originality, Lezama, 40, makes certain gallery owners squeamish and collectors nervous. His typically large-scale works are imposing in their size and complexity, startling in their frank depictions of frequently nude, mainly working-class Mexicans (including children) engaged in activities that are simultaneously violent and sordid, touching and tender.

Like fever dreams, Lezama's neo-baroque paintings rope together seemingly unrelated elements. Chiaroscuro lighting and other Old Master influences dignify tragi-comic tableaux of inebriated peasants and Indian prostitutes. In one of Lezama's mock-heroic compositions, the pop singer Juan Gabriel has the noble bearing of a Roman senator, despite being surrounded by a semi-circle of naked women with the letters M-E-X-I-C-O painted across their bellies. Majestic landscapes are made unsettlingly humorous by the unexpected presence of a cheesy corporate logo, a band of strolling mariachis.

Once, according to Lezama, a top collector here dismissed the idea of buying Lezama's paintings with a single word: "Never!" The artist's laconic reply: "For me, it's a favorable statement."

Hate him or love him, Lezama is hot. His work is selling briskly, and he's being honored through the end of June with a large solo retrospective, “La madre pródiga” (The Prodigal Mother), at the Museum of Mexico City, a couple of blocks from the capital's Zócalo.

"The Zócalo and the center of México is a place with an energy and magnetism. It's a privilege to be here," Lezama says in Spanish while strolling the museum galleries.

What he especially likes about the venue, a venerable Spanish-colonial building, is that it attracts not only art mavens but also the curious drifting in off the street. "The specialized public knows my work, has a relation with it and knows it well. But I'm interested in the general public, and this is the first time I have that opportunity."

Burly and gregarious, Lezama spews out ideas and opinions like an AK-47 with a stuck trigger. The offspring of a Mexican artist father and a Texas mother who split up when he was a child, he grew up on both sides of the border and also spent a few years in Paris.

He's a vintage-car nut, with a fleet that includes an Impala, a Chevy Nova, a Rambler Classic, a '54 Cadillac and a '46 Buick. "The spirit of the United States for me is the spirit of the road," he says. "The road movie, the road trip, displacement. . . . Because this is the construction of U.S. identity. You're constructed by leaving behind your past in order to construct your future."

If he weren't a painter (trained at the National School of Fine Arts), he reckons he'd be a mechanic. "I like mechanics, the sensation of certainty, that if you do it right, it will function."

Not surprisingly, given his polyglot, multicultural upbringing, Lezama likes to mix styles and genres in his art and to interweave high art and pop culture. "I like genres in order to break them and transform them lightly." He's equally admiring of Rubens' mythological paintings and vampire western movies.

He also believes that great art aspires to the global by focusing on the local. "We consider that Goya is universal," he says. "But in the 18th century, they said that he was the most Spanish type of artist in the world."

Stylistically and thematically, Lezama's art straddles several eras, making some observers regard him as a backward-looking figurative painter, others as a contemporary iconoclast. In truth, he's a thoroughly modern anti-modernist, or as Erick Castillo, curator of "La madre pródiga," has described him, a "traditionalist heretic working for the nocturnal legacy of the Mexican unconsciousness."

"His art, on the one hand it's very logical, on the other it's very uncommon," says Castillo. "Many people in the debate think that Daniel is a traditionalist painter, that he is a painter mexicanista."

Lezama is among a handful of Mexico's best-known young and middle-age contemporary artists, a group that includes Gabriel Orozco and the expats Melanie Smith and Francis Alÿs. His work has been shown both internationally and in some of Mexico's most important venues, and it addresses some of the most fundamental aspects of Mexican identity and history.

Partly because of this prominence, he has been criticized by some Mexicans who don't like seeing their country depicted in what they regard as a harsh critical light. Others claim to have been left speechless, such as a critic for the Mexico City daily El Universal who wrote of "La madre pródiga" that "It seduced me, and it terrorized me. It left me feeling incapable of writing about his work." (She went on to praise the show copiously.)

Complex themes

LEZAMA'S images of ordinary Mexicans -- naked or humbly dressed, their faces anxiety-filled, their surroundings often squalid -- are not idealized. But neither are they intended to be shameful, says the painter, who virtually never uses live human models.

Though he works in genres (landscape, allegory) that typically have been used to idealize Mexican life, Lezama employs them strategically to showcase the country's brutal aspects (poverty, cruelty, corruption) as well as its most stirring and poetic ones. That ambiguity is what makes his paintings so disquieting and controversial.

The current exhibition's title, which refers to a massive painting specially commissioned for the show, reminiscent of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” is one of Lezama's characteristic provocations about a subject that figures prominently in his art: motherhood. For most Mexicans, motherhood is a sacred office, reinforced by centuries of social custom and spiritual belief, and symbolized by the most revered of national icons, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

For Lezama, motherhood is a more problematic notion. As a painter, he recognizes the pictorial power of the image of the Virgin, supposedly first seen in a vision by the Indian peasant (and later saint) Juan Diego in 1531. In the context of Mexican history, the Virgin has been both a symbol of spiritual salvation and the emblem of the Spaniards' conquest of America's indigenous people.

Because of its unique status, that "one hand-painted image" also has dominated the history of Mexican figurative painting and pictorial representation in general, Lezama says. "She's the single most important image in the world." In works such as "Muchacha disfrazada de Manto de la Virgen" (Girl disguised in the cloak of the Virgin), depicting a plump, curly-haired young woman whose skin bears the green- and gold-starred pattern of the Virgin of Guadalupe's mantle, Lezama probes the Virgin's mixed identity as beloved Earth Mother, imperial emblem and aesthetic dominatrix.

Lezama is constantly deconstructing and challenging such received ideas about national values and myths as they have been encoded in Mexican art works for hundreds of years. "The Legend of the Volcanoes" depicts a pair of nude, ghostly pale models (one male, one female) posing atop two lumpy piles that are meant to represent the twin peaks of Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl that hover on the capital's eastern horizons.

By invoking an anthropomorphic painterly allegory, the work examines the way certain artistic genres in Mexico have been used to serve various political ideologies and agendas. Docile, romanticized landscapes were greatly prized during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, who based his legitimacy on his claim that he had brought peace to Mexico after decades of violent conflict. In the 1920s and '30s, huge, colorful murals came into vogue as the government commissioned leftist artists such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros to broadcast its quasi-Marxist messages to the masses.

"Obviously, the era of murals is an ideological transmission, except in the case of José Clemente Orozco, who is an artist who escapes all definition," Lezama says.

"He's one of my idols because he was able to penetrate ideology and to puncture it and to enter the subterranean."

Lezama has little use for Mexico's contemporary art establishment, which he regards as sycophantic and exclusive. But he embraces the role of a public artist by giving frequent public talks and interviews. "I can't conceive the arrogance that says, 'I'm not going talk with anyone.' "

And despite the daily challenges of life in his hectic hometown, he can't imagine being elsewhere. "I'm very much a homebody," he says. "I have a pet, I have cars. For me, Mexico City is full of places of life, of diversion, of sadness, of beauty."

reed.johnson@latimes.com
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