Escultura Social: A New Generation of Art from Mexico City
Nasher Museum of Art
Through June 7

I am greeted by the image of a kind young woman, her face calm, almost loving. She speaks: “On behalf of all the artists represented in this exhibition, its curator and the Nasher Museum of Art, I’d like to welcome you to the exhibition Escultura Social: A New Generation of Art from Mexico City. I hope you find this exhibition appealing and that you enjoy your time here.”

The video screen blips and she begins again, “On behalf of all the artists … .” I stand there for several minutes watching the woman again and again as she restates her welcome. The greeting is an artwork by María Alós. It is art masquerading as infrastructure, a subtle work, admirable for its brevity as well as its stealth. Alós’ piece is an appropriate prologue to an exhibition anchored, paradoxically, by ephemera.

In 2003, Escultura Social‘s curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm, of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, visited the Venice Biennale where artist Gabriel Orozco presented The Everyday Altered, an exhibition that brought world attention to a group of young artists out of Mexico City. The group included Abraham Cruzvillegas, Gabriel Kuri, Damian Ortega, Fernando Ortega and Pedro Reyes, all of whom are participants in Escultura Social. Widholm’s subsequent visits to Mexico City revealed these artists to be part of a loose collective, many of them friends who either grew up or studied together. This was a new generation of artists with a DIY sensibility, establishing their own galleries, publications, record labels and other channels of distribution.

The exhibition title is a translation of the term social sculpture, coined by Joseph Beuys. Indeed, Beuys, the German artist, teacher, performer, trickster and social visionary, is the patron saint of Escultura Social, invoked in the exhibition text and in some of the artworks themselves. It is hard to underestimate Beuys’ influence upon the generations of artists that have followed him. Escultura Social, therefore, is well served by this attribution, furthering the dialogue that circulates around Beuys and his legacy. That being said, some of the artworks in the exhibition feel as if they are indeed indebted to Beuys. Others are peripheral at best.

One of the first works I encounter upon entering the exhibition space is a freestanding vitrine that houses a tattooed Kewpie doll. The artist (who is also a tattoo artist) goes by the name of Dr. Lakra. Most of Lakra’s artworks involve the compulsive marking upon the bare skin of figures found in vintage magazines and posters. Lakra’s tats read as a kind of graffiti, a contagion of ink that speaks to a continuum of the body, from living human skin to its manifold depictions. Lakra reaches into the world of the constructed image and leaves his mark. In doing so he reminds us of the psychic power of these images, from pin-up girls to presidents, and with every tag he manages, incrementally, to destabilize that power.

Daniel Guzmán’s “Used Beauty” and “Useless Beauty” (2006) display cheap gold bling-y necklaces, each strung with a bejeweled letter that spells out the work’s title. In these works, the necklaces are hung on two distinctly different support systems. The letter-bearing necklaces in “Used Beauty” dangle from a traditional Mexican wire basket. Guzmán milks the tension between these two decorative elementsis the basket the display for the necklaces, or are the necklaces adorning the basket? “Useless Beauty” flaunts its necklaces upon an abstract geometric metal formthe uselessness in its title raises questions about the value of purely aesthetic art objects.

In the spirit of Claes Oldenburg’s monumental sculptures of everyday objects, Gabriel Kuri’s untitled wall hanging takes the form of a more-than-10-foot-tall shopping receipt. It’s hard to think of a more ubiquitous and ephemeral object than these flimsy slips of paper that tend to escape our notice. Kuri has inverted all expectations surrounding this object by having it reproduced in hand-woven wool. There’s a stunning contradiction in how accurate and true to its subject this work is, and how radically recast it is in scale, presented in such a substantial, tactile form. The piece manages to aggrandize the profoundly insignificant, to render the mechanically reproduced via the handmade, and to cause us to see anew these minor contracts we continually enter into.

Fernando Ortega’s videos walk a razor-sharp edge between live action and still life. With a running time of 1 hour, 1 minute and 37 seconds, “Colibrí inducido a sueño profundo (Hummingbird induced to deep sleep)” (2006) tracks the slightest shifts and rustles of a sleeping hummingbird. This rarified image contradicts the manic energy we associate with the darting flitting movements of the hummingbird awake. The depiction is reminiscent of Audubon’s field illustrations, the way they present birds frozen in time with stylized flora against a denatured ground of blank white. The bird in Ortega’s video floats in a similar white space, elegantly perched upon a single branch. There are also parallels between this piece and Andy Warhol’s 1963 (321 minute) film “Sleep.” Indeed, one can imagine Ortega’s spare composition redone as a series of Warholian multiples.

In Gustavo Artigas’ video work “Ball Game” (2007), social sculpture takes the tangible form of a basketball game between at-risk kids and gang members in an outreach program in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. “Ball Game” shows troubled kids focusing on the problem solving required to compete effectively in a new version of hoopsand having a great time doing it. The positive outcome of this experiment shines light on a powerful notionthat a single structural shift (in this case a sideways basket) can be a catalyst for change. As with all documentaries, it’s worth asking whether the presence of the camera has altered its subjects’ behavior. But even if this were the case in “Ball Game,” its value would in no way be diminished. The end result is that art made something happen.

Yoshua Okón’s “Coyoteria” (2003) is (in some ways quite literally) a piss-take on Beuys’ 1974 iconic performance “I Like America and America Likes Me.” Okón’s video documents a performance that mimics the original in which Beuys lived over a period of days in a gallery space he cohabited with a coyote. In Okón’s version, the “Beuys” figure substitutes the artist’s signature felt blanket with a cheap fleece one, imprinted with faux-Navajo designs and the image of a wolf or coyote. Okón also replaces Beuys’ signature cane with a police baton. In the role of the coyote we find a man in a suit aping animal mannerisms, sniffing, snarling and yes, urinating on the TV guides that are strewn about the space (in lieu of Beuys’ house training paper of choiceThe Wall Street Journal).No doubt a key inspiration for this work is the term “coyote,” which in Mexican slang is used to mean someone who smuggles people across the border into the U.S. While Okón’s work is clever and darkly funny, it comes across as a mere pantomime, without coming close to the depth (or the beauty) of the original.

Nuevos Ricos is an arts collective and record label that includes artist Carlos Amorales, musician Julian Lede and graphic designer Andre Pahl. Their piece, “Los guererros (The warriors)” (2007) places stills from Walter Hill’s 1979 cult hit The Warriors side-by-side with photographs of Mexico City kids who formed gangs inspired by the film. Nuevos Ricos (which means “new rich” or, more familiarly, “nouveaux riches”) work in a kind of merged modality, incorporating sociological research with conceptual art projects. The black and white documentary-style street images share a range of commonalities with Hill’s grandiloquent paranoid vision. From subtle facial expressions to acquired modes of swagger to one of cinema’s earliest shock-value shotsa gun pointed directly at the cameraNuevos Ricos makes a case for life imitating art.

In Carlos Amorales’ double-sided video projection “Useless Wonder” (2006) we are bombarded with an onslaught of phantasmal figures, silhouettes of pregnant women, apes with human skulls, bird heads on human bodies. These dreamlike morphing creatures are presented and reinstated in varying degrees of scale and within a narrow palette of black, white and red. Aside from associations to the image of the Egyptian god of the sky Horus and archetypal symbols of fertility and death, these hallucinations feel like they’re part of a shared unconscious database of meanings. Amorales draws from an ever-growing collection of imagery that he calls the “liquid archive,” an appealing strategy that doesn’t feel completely unrelated to the Jungian notion of the collective unconscious. The other side of the screen features a world map that appears to be made of black shards floating in a viscous liquid, alternately disassembling and finding its way back to wholeness.

Julieta Aranda’s “I have lost confidence …” (2006) is a paradoxical construction, a kind of portable graffiti. A large sheet of paper, spray painted with day-glo pink lettering, is nailed onto the wall. The work declares, “I have lost confidence with everybody in the country at the moment.” The more we consider it, the more this overly general statement simply falls apart. Who really ever has confidence in “everyone”? And which country is she referring to? Since the work is hanging here in the U.S. we might construe it as referring to us, but what if it were hanging in Sweden? And while Aranda has managed to create a kind of “clean” graffiti, the work sustains the valence of vandalism with its big heavy nails hammered into the museum wall. Further, the work involves two sheets of paper, one nailed on top of the other, which begs the question, are there words spray painted on the bottom layer? Is Aranda’s “lost confidence” covering up the optimism of a former statement? A seemingly unending stream of questions is raised by this ostensibly simple construction.

Merging the ephemeral with the imaginary, Mario García Torres engages with the mythology surrounding various pioneers in conceptual art of 1960s and ’70s. Torres’ focus in this exhibition centers on the artist Alighiero e Boetti, who created an arts gathering space in Kabul called One Hotel. Through examples of faked stationery, a Calder-esque mobile based on a bourgeois golf course and an imagined correspondence with Boetti, Torres envisions himself in relationship with the renowned artist. There’s an almost vibratory complexity at play in these works. Torres implodes the post-Sept. 11 present with a romantic vision of art emanating from Kabul in the ’70s, a scenario that, at the current historical moment at least, could not possibly be achieved with the ease that Boetti enjoyed when he resided there.

“Share-e-Nau Wonderings (A Film Treatment)” (2006) is the title of Torres’ imagined correspondence with Boetti. Imprinted on thermo fax paper, the text will ultimately fade completely from view. Every reader becomes a keeper or guardian of these fading texts. As readers we are also implicated in the undoing of the texts because of the light we require to see them. This level of transience manifests a feeling of urgency in their reading as the words, in real time, fall away. Everything about this installation is worth readingnot merely its disappearing text but the particular glow of light in the space of the vitrine in which it is displayed; the soft shadows cast by each sheet of thermo fax paper; the uncanny construction of the mounts that hold the sheets aloft; and the repetition of each sheet in space. The sheets of paper seem to hover in space, destined for loss and inevitable emptiness. As meaning is drained from their surfaces they will become mere form. The sheets of paper may not be alive, but they are in the process of dying.

Many of the works presented in Escultura Social are videos, and there’s also a projected film. The interplay between the transient experience of these time-based works and the objects on display underscores the idea of the ephemeral and suggests a kind of interchangeability between solid objects, film, video, language and ideas. Space prohibits me from outlining the rest of the works in this worthy exhibition, but they include the image of a buried VW bug, a peripatetic schoolhouse, disposable pop music, and a wall-sized text piece that concludes “All my explanations are rubbish.” The word “Useless” appears in the titles of two different works in Escultura Socialan exhibition permeated by impermanence.

Escultura Social moves in many directions at once. It basks in the glow of the great Beuys. It gives us a glimpse of a vibrant bastion of new art. It introduces us to a group of new artists, each of whom delivers an energized perspective. It should be noted that the exhibition catalog (in both Spanish and English) is more than just a document of the exhibition, but rather a counterpoint and an expansion of it. The power of Escultura Social is in its contradictory impulses toward the ephemeral and the substantialperhaps this is the power of social sculpture.

As I make my way out of Escultura Social, there, once again, is María Alós with the counterpart to her welcoming video. Now she wishes me, and all who pass, a warm-hearted farewell. Her looped voice fades as I move past the exit. Alós’ project works effectively as infrastructure, but its impossible sincerity somehow manages to undermine a face-value function. It seems to be saying that sheas an artist and fellow human beingis entirely conscious of my presence as I come and go. With this subtle message Alós seems to be urging that perhaps I become a bit more conscious as well.