Arts Desk

“Mexico: Expected/Unexpected” at American University Museum, Reviewed

American University’s current show, "Mexico: Expected/Unexpected," certainly contains an unexpected array of artists: Ana Mendieta, Gordon Matta-Clark, William Eggleston, Doug Aitken, John Baldessari, and Ed Ruscha. Notice: They're not Mexican.

But don't be alarmed just yet, because there are Mexican voices throughout this exhibition, curated by Carlos Basauldo (it first showed at the Maison Rouge in Paris). He culled the works from the Isabel and Agustin Coppel Collection, which positions contemporary Mexican artists alongside the works of their international peers.

There are some parallels to be found here: Themes of destruction stretch across works by American Matta-Clark (whose video "Conical Intersect" captures the artist and a crew carving a cone into a Parisian building prior to its demolition), France's Tatiana Trouvé (who contributes an installation of building materials ranging from bronze to leather to cement and more), and Mexico's Damian Ortega (who pulled apart a drum kit).

But "Expected/Unexpected" isn't just about drawing connections between artists from Mexico and other parts of the world. Rather, some of the show's relationships exist solely between the international artists. For example, the show pairs neon pieces by Aitken ("99¢ Dreams," pictured) and South African artist Kendell Geers ("B/Order," with the B constantly flickering). While either artist might have created a work that reflects a Mexican experience, it's doubtful that's what they were going for here. In the show's Mexican context, these may feel Mexican, but like other works in the exhibition, they display an acute symptom of globalization: a local issue is also a local issue somewhere else on the globe.

A similar example might be the work of Francis Alÿs, displayed prominently near the entrance. In his video "Zocalo, 22 May 1999," he captures the shifting shadow of the Mexican flag in Mexico City's Plaza de la Constitución. The flag pole is so large that people in the square stand in its shadow, moving with it throughout the day. But this is hardly specific to Mexico: You could do the same thing beneath the shadows of a Roman obelisk. Even the artist's background speaks to globalization and the ways in which it complicates art: Alÿs, a Belgian, expatriated to Mexico in the 1980s, so his work even brings up a labeling issue. Is it Mexican or Belgian?

While the collection intends to put Mexican artists in dialogue with international contemporaries, the exhibition seems to be dominated inadvertently by their international contemporaries by nearly 2:1. Even the shows marketing sells the names of the American knowns. Who would run to see the exhibit if the only person promoted was Pedro Reyes? But that's actually the point here: If you don't know who Reyes is, maybe you should.

In fact, a suite of videos by Reyes might be the exhibit's strongest inclusion. "Palas por Pistolas" ("Shovels From Guns") documents the artist's attempt to transform 1,527 voluntarily surrendered firearms into 1,527 shovels in order to plant 1,527 trees. Didactic though wonderfully poetic, it is a work that tugs at heartstrings like few others here do. It's also easy to see it through globalization's prism: Culiacán City, like other parts of the world, continues to struggle with gun violence—and so Reyes’ work hits close to home.

That’s not to say other works don’t address important political and social issues. Indeed, many do. But the most relevant political issue the exhibition confronts might be contained in the title. Is it expected that we are ignorant of contemporary Mexican artists? What's unexpected is that when we are presented with their work—as we are at the Katzen— we easily might still overlook them, preferring to dwell on the bigger names from New York and L.A. Globalization might be complicated, but here its winners and losers are clear.

"Mexico: Expected/Unexpected" is on view 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays to Aug. 12 at the American University Museum, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW.

Doug Aitken, 99 Cents Dreams, 2007. Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York.

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