By Lori Waxman
It's tempting to begin this review of "Memoria Presente: An Artistic Journey," the National Museum of Mexican Art's 30th anniversary exhibition, with an update on the Trump administration's plans for building a border wall, decorating it with solar panels and sending a petroleum pipeline under it. Or with stats refuting the president's erroneous claim that Mexico is the second-deadliest country in the world. Or with stories about the families broken apart when immigrants in the country illegally have been deported to the south. But why ruin a good party?
NMMA first opened its doors in 1987, as the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, having been founded by a group of public school teachers and community activists to fill what they saw as a lack of Chicano representation in the city's educational institutions. Located in Pilsen, it remains the only accredited Latino museum in the country, even though people of Latin American descent constitute the second-largest ethnic group by population.
With facts and figures and tweets like these, the party cannot be just a celebration. Instead "Memoria Presente" is a protest-as-party. (Great rallies usually have something jubilant to them, just as magnificent fetes ought to be at least partly subversive.) Thirty of the most exciting artists of Mexican descent working in the Chicago area today have been invited, and they're as diverse a cohort as is the population served by the museum, ranging in age from 26 to 76; in birthplace from the state of Jalisco, in western central Mexico, to Moline, in northwestern Illinois; in media from woodblock prints to store-bought wigs. Some names are familiar — Alberto Aguilar, Maria Gaspar and Juan Angel Chavez have all been in prominent local shows in the past year — and others less so.
Much of what fills the exhibition, whose title translates as "Present Memory," looks festive at first glance. There are towering cakes, swirling ribbons, paper chains, golden cactuses and the possibility of dancing under a rising moon, but nothing is quite what it seems.
Yvette Mayorga's "Make America Sweet Again" uses piped frosting and construction materials to concoct an overwhelming diorama of border-related anxieties. Rodrigo Lara Zendejas's riff on the Voladores de Papantla, an ancient Mesoamerican ritual that involves four men flying downward on twisting ropes from a 90-foot-high pole, puts muted beribboned sculptures of immigrants into an endless, disorientating tailspin. Ivan Lozano strings up pretty translucent links of packing tape covered in transfer images sourced from internet coverage of brutal drug cartel executions. Salvador Jimenez-Flores molds a harsh futuristic landscape in which cactuses hybridize with humans to create a resilient mestizo race. Luis A. Sahagun's breathtaking "Lonely Moon Rides High" is really just a battered scrap of wood screwed into a silvery insulation panel.
The perils and aesthetics of urban life figure everywhere. The graffiti artist Miguel "Kane One" Aguilar sprays a drippy, hazy Xanadu on an indoor wall and also offers free running tours of public art in Pilsen, a neighborhood known for its murals (the next tour takes place at 10 a.m. July 29). Street artists need be fast on their feet, as must others: Errol Ortiz, a Chicago Imagist and one of the senior figures in the show, traces the deadly ubiquity of guns in "Serenely Absorbing Passionless Violence," a mesmerizing pattern painting in which weapons, skeleton parts and bullet-riddled bodies interweave. Nicole Marroquin prints hippie designs atop images of police confronting student protesters during the Harrison High School walkouts of 1968, when demands for bilingual and bicultural education met up with a zeitgeist of flower power and civil rights.
Lady Liberty, shorthand for all the freedoms and opportunities promised by the United States, may be the most recurrent motif in "Memoria Presente." I counted at least three appearances, six if each of the four composite statues of Eric Garcia's "Pillars of the Community" are added up individually. Though slip-cast from identical molds — the bottom third is the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, the middle is Venus de Milo, the top Liberty — each pillar is marked with slightly different percentages. To this brazen measuring of ethnic and cultural heritage, Sam Kirk adds a third element of identity: gender. Kirk's "Trans-ition" layers sheets of paper and glass one atop the other to draw a fluid portrait of a complex person who escapes simple classifications.
Harder to categorize are a scattering of elusive artworks that eschew overt interest in any of the above socio-political concerns. Dan Ramirez's "Altheia II-W," a meticulously painted diptych on birch panels, distills a search for truth in spare geometric forms. Georgina Valverde's towering "Temazcal," modeled on traditional sweat lodges, emerges not from adobe but the stuff of here and now: crochet panels, plastic bags, galvanized steel and lots of glue. Victoria Martinez's brown felt banner, screen-printed with brick and turquoise sketches, decorated with rhinestones and lime stitches and hung from a strawberry banner, could be the standard of a new generation, as hip as it is comfortable with itself.
Having the freedom to be mysterious and idiosyncratic — now there's something to celebrate.
"Memoria Presente: An Artistic Journey" runs through Aug. 13 at the National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th St., 312-738-1503, www.nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org.