By Marco Vera
For the past two years, the art being produced by Mexicali artists in various disciplines has obtained much deserved recognition on the East Coast and in Europe by key cultural players and institutions. Yet, arguably, their place of residence continues to be draped under a banner where contemporary border art continues to be associated by the casual enthusiast with the bygone art of Tijuana in the 2000's or the original Chicano muralists of Los Angeles. Commencing in March 2012 with a commissioned group show at Artists Space in New York and recently persisting in Washington, DC at the Corcoran College of Art + Design with a month long stint which entailed workshops, an art show featuring the work of artists all throughout the Baja border, and the collaborative production of murals, Mexicali artists have taken their DIY aesthetic eastbound with striking results. Displaying an art full of independence and ingenious creativity through scant resources, the work being produced in the desert border region has created a gratifying connection with East Coast and European audiences, particularly the German art lovers.
What follows is a recounting of four particular Eastern love affairs with Mexicali art, excursions that correspond to the spirit of freedom present on both fronts.
In March 2012, the non-profit art gallery and arts organization Artists Space in New York's SoHo district commissioned Mexicali artists to present their work in a group exhibit entitled Radical Localism: Art, Video and Culture from Pueblo Nuevo's Mexicali Rose. Consisting of experimental and documentary films, photographs, collages, installation work and an original mural created for the show, the city's first ever group exhibition in the Big Apple made conspicuous waves via the self-governing ethos on display. The show was co-curated by Mexicali Rose Media/Arts Center alongside author Chris Kraus and Artists Space's Richard Birkett. A local, decentralized body of contemporary Mexican work was cast into the eastern hemisphere, where incendiary art pioneers and metropolitan aficionados merged in appreciation of a fledgling statement in Latin American art. As Kraus articulates in the Radical Localism booklet: "Mexicali's exotic adherence to traditional codes of behavior is both charm and curse. For better or worse, the city's largely intact local culture provides an inescapably local reality against which its artists are almost compelled to respond. Instead of leaving, they have chosen to practice a radical localism. Exiled from Mexico City, where artists are fully enmeshed in the international grid, the artists in Mexicali are aware of their opportunity to assert an alternative ethos within their own realm." Mexicali's acclaimed writer, Gabriel Trujillo, would go on to write: "Mexicali people do not need to believe that they are the center of the universe to psychologically compensate for what their home lacks as a city. They know what they have and what they don't. They don't mind being told what their deficiencies are culturally or artistically. They know that acknowledging weakness is a way to begin correcting it. The people of Mexicali are not afraid of critique, as they themselves are their own first critics."
The show would garner enthusiastic reviews in The Village Voice, The New Yorker and The New York Times, whose critic, Holland Cotter, claimed Artists Space "with this show again demonstrates that it is the most adventurous alternative gallery in Manhattan." States Artists Space curator Richard Birkett: "I was particularly interested in how there was a clear relationship between practices focused on social documentary and conceptually oriented practices. At the heart of both was a kind of transitional character, embedded in personal and local realities while addressing a globalized culture of images and signs. It was apparent to me that these practices were incredibly relevant to discourse happening around contemporary art production in more established art cities such as New York and Berlin. The strength and variety of work being produced by Mexicali artists, and its roots in precarious economic and social conditions, has strong connections to the manner in which a New York art scene developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s." Concurrent with the exhibition, Artists Space presented the symposium "The City Machine and Its Streets - Anomalous Ecologies," featuring conversations between renowned Mexico City writer and journalist Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, Los Angeles writer and journalist Ben Ehrenreich, Zeta journalist Sergio Haro and myself, hosted by writer Chris Kraus. Encompassing social critique and artistic upheaval, as well as establishing heartfelt relationships with audiences on the east coast, the "Radical Localism" exhibit demonstrated how alike the Mexicali and New York communities are in their search for freedom of expression. A comprehensive, empathetic impression was formed, reverberating on both ends of the free-spirited cultural spectrum.
Art Berlin Contemporary
In September 2012, via an invite from Artists Space, Mexicali positioned itself internationally as an urban art originator by participating in Art Berlin Contemporary. Art Berlin Contemporary was developed by Berlin galleries as an appealing platform for international galleries to present individual works of contemporary art from around the world in Berlin. Berlin, a city with numerous connections in relation to a history of borders and as a revitalized contemporary playground for experimentation, multiculturalism and the assimilation of world influences, proved an ideal launching point for the urban art of Mexicali into the international arena. The gap had been filled between creative proposals and artistry on the eastern terrain and Mexicali as an international exhibitor of urban art now captivated by the possibilities of global discourse.
Muralist Fernando Corona was on hand to create an onsite rendering of all the passion and lunacy that is intrinsic to the habitual irrationality that is border living. Working at a steadfast pace, the mural was delivered in a matter of days to the enjoyment and amusement of the international public on hand at the Art Berlin Contemporary forum. The mural, entitled "Atma Barrio Mundo," also displayed audiovisual production work from amateur and established Mexicali filmmakers working in various formats, be it digital video or Super 8mm film, to deliver a vision of Mexicali's exceptional everyday anomalies and eccentricities. The extent to which the multiple spectators could relate to Mexicali's urban art propositions and eagerness seemed limitless.
Kunstverein München in Munich, Germany, sought out Mexicali artists to present their work as part of a September 2013 group exhibition entitled "4 Projects in Mexico," which further solidified Mexicali's ongoing dialogue with the German art crowd. As a privately sponsored association with nearly a thousand members, the Kunstverein Munich operates relatively independently in terms of its immediate economical as well as (cultural) political interests. As it states in its bio: "This twofold autonomy predestines the Kunstverein to be a space for artistic experimentation, where innovative curatorial work can be accomplished without spurious consideration for political duties or mercantile calculations." Co-curators Bart van der Heide & Saim Demircan accomplished unifying the peculiarity of the border town oeuvre for the exhibition with work coming out from Central & Southern Mexico with faultless equilibrium and cleverness.
The "4 Projects in Mexico" exhibit featured video, photography, painting, drawing, print and mixed media work, plus an original mural created by Fernando Corona as well. Work by up-and-coming and established Mexicali artists existed side-by-side in total harmony as a reproduction of the current way things shape up in the independent contemporary art world of the border region. The opportunity afforded by Kunstverein München for universal discussions on aesthetic independence in a globalized society became inspired meditations on the state of contemporary art not only in these two countries, but also in different arenas the world over. Inspired by the exchange and assertion from European kindred spirits in Munich, Mexicali artists left an urban art trail elsewhere on their European travels.
Corcoran College of Art + Design
Throughout the whole month of October 2013, the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington, DC hosted Mexicali Rose working with the Corcoran student community to curate a mural installation in Gallery 31 as part of the exhibition entitled "Secondary Inspection: Una Selección del Arte de Baja California." The exhibition not only displayed the work of Mexicali artists, but also the contemporary artwork being produced by artists in Tijuana and Rosarito as a display of Baja California border solidarity with help from the Mexican Cultural Institute of Washington, D.C.. The month long residency also encompassed a series of workshops at Sitar Arts Center, an affiliated community center providing after-school, weekend and summer classes in the visual arts, music, drama, dance, digital arts and creative writing to over 700 students a year. Corcoran College of Art + Design, located right next to the White House, provided an ideal platform in trying to send a message with the exhibition about what's happening on the border besides all of the atrocities, adversity and misrepresentation uttered about in Washington.
Joe Hale, director of college exhibitions at Corcoran College of Art + Design expands on the nature of their request for Mexicali artists to exhibit their work in DC: "One of the main goals with our gallery is to use DC's status as a hub of international conversation to our advantage. We could do this from many different angles, but I think a more relevant cultural import today is Mexican culture, especially because lawmakers in DC spend so much time twisting and turning immigration laws. Everywhere you go there is Latin American (mostly Mexican) culture spread by a growing working class. Republicans want their vote. Everybody should be thinking about this border. It is healthy for culture to bring something from the edge to the center." Hale also marks a relationship between the independent, recent history of Mexicali and DC: "I think the show had a very punk and skater culture feel that DC can relate to because of its own history as a punk town. So much of the work in the show was documentary work, which is also a natural fit. A lot of the 1970s-1980's punks were the children of journalists who had this sense of needing to report - which is what gave DC punk that political edge - Fuck Reagan. This is how the documentary stuff fits right in with the painting - its all very populist, very living-breathing-real stuff." The weight of human politics and transcultural connections overcoming shortsighted legislation is how global culture can play an active role in directing itself towards causing a positive impact on society.
Mexicali Rose will be curating a series of short films that demonstrate community empowerment for the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in Fall 2014.
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