If a globalizing group of corporate execs from the United States had curated the Made in Mexico exhibit, on view through May 9th at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, there would be an even greater paucity of works by Mexicans than there is. And there would be an even greater plethora of “experimental” work by chic international artists—Brits, Belgians, Spaniards, Germans, Japanese, and Gringo-Americanos—at the expense of edgy conceptual stuff by artists from the actual country. Fortunately, some of the exhibit’s most interesting photographic and three-dimensional work is by Mexican artists Pedro Reyes, Daniela Rossell, and Sebastián Romo. Still, the international constituency of contributors unwittingly suggests that Mexico’s role is still partly that of passionate muse and fount of inspiration for cerebral northerners.
Economics aside, it’s a stimulating, if sometimes facile bunch of artworks, and all of it clearly did result from contact, physical or not, with Mexican culture. The Japanese artist who did the campy self-portrait as Frida Kahlo apparently never visited Mexico to see Frida’s pretty house in Coyocán—but his gender-blending combination of Japanese and Mexican decorative elements might help to sate at last the appetite for her ubiquitous image. And the subversive Spaniard who hired several Chiapan women to repeat after him in Spanish, “I’m being hired to say something the meaning of which is unknown to me”? Well, it’s a good thing the nearby caption explains what they’re saying, because the ambient noise in the gallery makes it hard for a speaker of broken intermediate Spanish to hear the poor ladies. As much light praise, nothing to take too seriously, could go unto these offbeat pieces as to the collection of math-and-science curios and odds-and-ends doodles by Reyes, the spectacularly satirical color photos of ultra-wealthy Mexico City sex-kittens by Rossell, and the model of a few Mexican city blocks by Romo, where block letters spelling out Spanish words serve as the primary architectural elements of the buildings.
As it happens, one gringa comports herself notably. Norwood native Sharon Lockhart (now in L.A.) offers among the most accessible works—a large color-photograph sequence of a mason re-tiling a patch of floor in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Unknowingly symbolizing the alienation of the peasant, in proletariat-blue the man works behind a glass screen that segregates him more from the museum goers than it does from the ancestral ghostly masks and squatting deities who, dug from the ruins of Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Mexico, watch over him. The friendly photographer has engaged the mason in dialogue before returning to the darkroom—exploiting him nominally, but loving him thoroughly.
Much is made, in discussion of Mexico, of the tension between ancient and modern influences. (Two other dualities reconcile the serpent and the eagle, the animist and the Catholic.) As it happens, Ancient vs. Modern is the playfully high-minded title of a three-dimensional piece by another Mexican artist, Eduardo Abaroa; but the subtitle of the adorable piece actually does describe the object—Mastodon with yellow cupcakes—which gives comfort to museum-babies bawling from boredom in their imported strollers.