The 1990s in Mexico City saw not only an economic bubble and subsequent collapse of the peso, increasing narco violence, intractable government corruption, and rising income inequality, but also the emergence of a vibrant alternative art scene. In neo-conceptualist work that often alluded to the turbulent political, social, and economic landscape of Mexico City during that decade, artists such as Luis Felipe Ortega, Eduardo Abaroa, Damián Ortega, and Minerva Cuevas subverted existing nationalistic and institutional art practices, often with daring and humor. Operating outside the margins of an art world into which even canonical works and texts of the modern era had still not filtered, this “post earthquake” generation of artists opened artist-run spaces and organized exhibitions in homes, markets, and abandoned buildings, where they could show, and show each other, their work.
Since the end of the 1990s, several exhibitions—including 2002’s “Mexico City: An Exhibition about the Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values” at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York and last year’s “Strange Currencies: Art and Action in Mexico City, 1990–2000” at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia—have reconsidered Mexico City’s art scene of the 1990s. Over the past two years, alternative galleries—including the former Preteen Gallery and the currently active Lulu, Lodos, and Casa Maauad spaces—whose independent ethos conjures the improvised venues of 30 years ago, have popped up all over the city. Rarely is the thread of influence from one generation of creators to the next seen as clearly as it is in the recent history of Mexican contemporary art.
The latest contribution to this narrative of influence was a group exhibition at Kurimanzutto Gallery. Titled “xylañynu. taller de los viernes” the show reunited five artists—Gabriel Orozco, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Damián Ortega, Gabriel Kuri, and Jerónimo Lopez (a.k.a. Dr. Lakra)—who met weekly between 1987 and 1992 to view and critique one another’s work. The Friday Workshop (Taller de los viernes), as the meetings were called, was emblematic of the do-it-yourself culture of Mexico City’s alternative scene of the 1990s. What the exhibition’s curator Guillermo Santamarina calls an “unbreakable courage of experimentation with materials, supports and work models or of connection/situation” set a new precedent for communal learning and offered new models of art production and distribution.
An illuminating essay by María Minera that accompanied the show describes the influence that Orozco, older by some ten years, had on his cohorts, and the methods by which the group attempted to expand on European and Latin American conceptual art of the 1970s. As Ortega explains, “Step by step we understood the political weight of the elements that make up a work, and so gradually we all abandoned pictorial representation to materialize it as cultural, sculptural objects that questioned traditional readings and meanings.”
“Xylañynu” operated with the same playfulness and disregard for the traditional forms of art making and presentation that these artists embodied in the 1990s. This exhibition was not an homage to a generation, but rather a catching up—something akin to a school reunion, if you will—among artists who Santamarina, in his curatorial essay for the show, likens to the light-fingered protagonist of Robert Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket.
An absurdist sensibility was evident from the moment one approached the gallery’s entrance, which was partially blocked by an old car painted lime green and pastel pink by Cruzvillegas. It was reminiscent of the ones that clunk along the streets of Mexico City, cobbled together with spare parts and looking like they could fall apart at any given moment. It was a remarkably perfect fit for the entryway, which brings us to yet another commonality between the artists: their work’s inseparability from the context of Mexico City’s urban landscape, where space is a commodity not taken for granted and improvisation is a necessity.
The exhibition continued in Kurimanzutto’s main courtyard, where Ortega blurred street art and fine art with Physical Graffiti 5 and Physical Graffiti 6 (both 2015), graffiti “paintings” made from rebar that floated off the walls. Set in the middle of the courtyard, a quartet of Kuri’s brightly painted modular steel sculptures—all four titled This, Please and dating from 2010—initially appeared clean, minimal, and, to continue Santamarina’s metaphor of the pickpocket, outwardly “socially correct.” But the works are deceiving; each sculpture has been intentionally defiled by numerous cigarette butts put out directly on it.
Invoking Foucault’s theory of cynical parrhesia, Santamarina writes that while sharing aspects of philosophical parrhesia, or the obligation to speak the truth, its variant also allows “inaccuracy, double meanings, ambiguous humor, and even the exaltation of irony.” These qualities were in evidence in the main gallery, where works by Orozco, Dr. Lakra, Ortega, and Kuri comprised the bulk of the exhibition. Ortega’s Paisagem (2015), a four-walled structure built of polystyrene with a hole ripped out of one of the walls and the remaining residue left to scatter throughout the gallery, shared the space with Orozco’s Blind Signs (2013), an installation of tempered-glass panels with patterns of circles painted on them in black. Unlike Ortega’s structure, which uses a light material to create weight and volume, Orozco’s heavy glass panels become weightless negative space surrounding the painted forms. On nearby walls pages from vintage girlie magazines to which inked silhouettes of human figures have been added and a collection of vintage record albums reflected Dr. Lakra’s fascination with fetishism.
It is telling that this exhibition took place in a gallery that many say legitimized Mexico City on the international art map. Much Mexican art of the 1990s offered a regional perspective on subjects—including identity politics, the digital revolution, and a new world order—that consumed artists of that era around the globe, and it found its way onto the global art scene that was emerging at the same time. Kurimanzutto, originally a project-based, experimental, roving art space, now, paradoxically, has become a symbol of the commercial success of Mexican contemporary art.
Regardless, Kurimanzutto continues to support experimental projects by emerging artists and curators, most recently a yearlong series of shows in the gallery’s project room organized by independent curator and writer Chris Sharp. For “Every forest madly in love with the moon has a highway crossing it from one side to the other,” a solo show of new work by Mexican-born artist Rodrigo Hernández, the walls of the space were painted bright yellow, orange, electric blue, and deep purple. On each wall hung mysterious glyphs made of metal. The references here were Mexican artist and ethnologist Miguel Covarrubias’s illustrations for his seminal 1957 book Indian Art of Mexico and Central America, and Italian Futurist painting. Like those of the artists in Kurimanzutto’s main gallery, Hernández’s works are ambiguous, toeing the line between hieroglyphics and abstracted forms.
The influence of Kurimanzutto and its stable of artists can be seen in the “project-space revival” that has sprung up in Mexico City of late, where artists and curators are once again creating their own centers of conversation, convergence, and practice.
One of the most important of these new spaces is Casa Maauad, a residency project whose mission is to nurture relationships between visiting and local artists. Occupying a colonial building in the up-and-coming neighborhood of San Rafael, it has hosted over 50 artists since it opened five years ago.
During her residency at Casa Maauad, artist Chantal Peñalosa created an installation titled Mañana, Mañana about her hometown of Tecate, Mexico, and its stagnation. Sandwiched between Plexiglas panels that wound through the exhibition space, a collection of newspapers rescued the memory of Tecate’s once-thriving main plaza, where a promised economic tomorrow has yet to arrive.
Indeed, the future as something that perennially slips through one’s fingers is a subject that Peñalosa explores frequently. For her solo project at Proyectos Monclova, “El Panorama, sobre todo si uno lo ve desde un puente, es prometedor” (The View, Especially If One Looks at It from a Bridge, Is Promising), Peñalosa filled the gallery space with the installation piece La idea de un millón de pesos (The Idea of a Million Pesos, 2016).
The work consists of the artist’s rubbings of coins, 14 pesos worth to a sheet, on letter-size pieces of paper. The 3,000 finished sheets in the exhibition represent a mere fraction of the number necessary to depict one million pesos.
Over the course of the last three years the Mexican peso has devalued significantly. Peñalosa’s ambition to arrive at one million pesos, in terms of the symbolic worth of the money, is thus a hopeless task.
With their references to Mexico’s social and physical fabric, Peñalosa’s installations build on the work of the neo-conceptualists of the 1990s, while Casa Maauad and Proyectos Monclova continue the ’90s tradition of providing a space for artists to create and converse. Currently, the conversation in Mexico City is about history and mentorship.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 38 under the title “Around Mexico City.”