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Mexican Combos

"A Fairy Tale," by Carlos Frsquez, mixed media.

A principal leitmotif of Colorado's history is the influence of Mexican culture. Though not equal in legend and lore to the cowboys and Indians, it has been more enduring. Mexican explorers coined the state's name, and the southern half was actually once a part of Mexico. Thus Mexican-Americans have been a major component of the state's population since way before there was even a state.

Colorado may be pretty far from old Mexico now, but with New Mexico right at our doorstep, the connections have never been more pronounced -- despite Tom Tancredo's wishful thinking.

The Borderlands exhibit at the Metro State Center for the Visual Arts addresses this relationship, combining artists from the Southwest (primarily Colorado) with their Mexican counterparts.

The show is an enlarged version of another Borderlands that was initially presented in Russia. Organized by University of Colorado art professor George Rivera, the original exhibit was a comparison of Russian and American art. "George's show gave me a good beginning," says CVA director Kathy Andrews, who put together Borderlands. "I think what we did was a great way to further George's idea about building bridges between the U.S. and other countries."

Andrews pared down the Rivera show, editing out the Russian pieces and then expanding Borderlands, adding several installations and an impressive section devoted to the legendary Luis Jiménez. The Jiménez portion of the show is virtually a stand-alone solo, and it is definitely the most notable aspect of this otherwise extremely uneven and unfocused exhibit. (Interestingly, considering the show's topic, Jiménez, who now lives in New Mexico, was born in Texas to parents who were illegal Mexican immigrants.)

"One of my goals is to bring national artists here, and I called Luis Jiménez -- he had a single piece in George's show -- and asked if he was interested, and he was," says Andrews. "He sent me several new works, both on the border theme and on the DIA theme," she adds, referring to the not-yet-completed "Denver Mustang," a monumental horse sculpture to be installed at Denver International Airport. "There's a lot of interest in the DIA piece." A tremendous understatement.

The interest -- maybe "concern" is a better word -- is that even though the sculpture was commissioned a decade ago, it's still nowhere to be seen -- except in preliminary drawings and prints included in Borderlands. "Denver Mustang" was first conceived as a thirty-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture of a rearing blue horse with orange eyes -- an example of shameless pandering by the Broncomaniacs who selected the art at DIA. It was to be installed outside Jeppesen Terminal, where, it's easy to imagine, it would look wonderful against the backdrop of that white-tent roof. Sadly, we'll just have to consign this image to our imaginations, because now the sculpture (if it ever gets here) will be smaller than planned and installed inside the terminal.

The most important pieces on display related to "Denver Mustang" are two huge, majestic drawings -- "Head #1: Working drawing for 'Denver Mustang'" and "Quarter scale drawing for the 'Denver Mustang'" -- that date back to the original commission. Other "Denver Mustang" works here are two lithographs, one from 1997 and the other from 2003 -- proof, I guess, that the project is still on Jiménez's mind.

Andrews supplemented the prints with two marvelous sculptures borrowed from local private collections that, although small, are nonetheless signature Jiménez. The first is "Progress II," a 1981 polyester-resin sculpture of a mounted vaquero roping a steer; the second, "Jack Rabbit," is a 1977 polyester-resin piece depicting a rabbit leaping out of a large cactus. Both sculptures date back to Jiménez's classic period and are glossy and colorful, finished more like lowrider muscle cars than traditional sculptures. Their inclusion informs viewers about the tactile qualities of Jiménez's sculptures and better enables us to envision his intentions for "Denver Mustang."

The Jiménez pieces, which occupy an entire gallery at the CVA, dominate Borderlands and are clearly its main attribute. However, there are a few other outstanding works, though the remaining artists are represented only by single examples.

One of these is "A Fairy Tale," a mixed-media piece from 2001 by Denver's Carlos Frésquez, one of the area's most accomplished artists. Frésquez has made a two-decades-long career out of mixing images from Mexico and the United States, and in the neo-pop "Fairy Tale," he sets the cartoon characters George and Jane Jetson against a map of the world with caption balloons of George speaking Spanish and Jane speaking English. While the piece could be characterized as embracing a hands-across-the-border sentiment, the title makes it ironic.

Closely related to the Frésquez is "Borderland," an acrylic on plywood from 2001 by Boulder artist Ricky Armendariz. Obviously custom-made for the Rivera version of the show, "Borderland" looks like an old billboard and brings to mind the well-known work of former Denver artist Gary Sweeney, of "America, Why I Love Her" fame (the two U.S. map murals at DIA). In the Armendariz, Mexican and American subjects see each other as "foreign," but the overall perspective is decidedly Mexican, with an endearing drawing of a Latina juxtaposed with a cruel caricature of a gringo.

Another standout in Borderlands is "Looking Through Time," a sepia-toned gelatin silver print from 2001 by Denver artist Merlin Madrid that is positively Spanish baroque. The photo depicts a still-life construction that includes draped fabrics, dried flowers, old photographs and a teddy bear.

One odd thing about Borderlands is that some of the artwork seems to be unrelated to the show's topic, including two of the most ambitious pieces on display. First is "Barrier to Begin," a 2003 sculpture by Cleveland artist David Norr that's made of carved Baltic birch disks lacquered in taxicab yellow and mounted on a stainless-steel frame. As far as I can tell, the piece is entirely abstract and has nothing to do with Mexico. The same may be said for "Livingware," a fabulous circular installation of high-fire vitreous china in flattened plant forms by Boulder artist Yumi Janairo Roth.

As demonstrated by the Norr and the Roth, CVA director Andrews didn't put as fine a point on Borderlands as she could have. Plus, sad to say, some of the material assembled by Rivera in the first place is marginal, at best. But the strengths of this show outweigh its weaknesses, especially given the Jiménez section.


The south-of-the-border mood is kicked up considerably in Miradas del Arte Mexicano/ A Vision of Mexican Art at the Museo de las Américas, as everything in this show comes from Mexico.

As many know, the Museo has been having a hard time financially and had to sell its property on Kalamath Street, which, unfortunately, means that plans for the new Michael Rotondi-designed building were scrapped. It's curious that in a city with so many wealthy and successful Hispanic businesspeople -- not to mention Hispanic-surnamed individuals in the hyper-affluent professional-sports realm -- that the Museo has to go begging.

Another big problem is that the place currently has no director, and the staff is working collaboratively to run it. But founder and longtime director José Aguayo, who resigned earlier this year to run for a seat on the Denver City Council, is still hanging around. Aguayo lost the election, so it seems to me that there's no reason he shouldn't return to the Museo. For his part, he'll say only that there's "a remote chance," which is more encouraging than what he said when he resigned, which was that he'd never come back. But since he hasn't really left, I think the Museo's board should just draft him into service. I can't imagine how else the place can stay on track, especially since there's no money to hire anyone else.

Ironically, the Museo's all-Mexican show is much less self-consciously "Mexican" than the predominantly American exhibit at the CVA. The Mexican artists in Miradas don't focus on their Mexican-ness, but instead participate in the same movements as their counterparts here. There are a couple that carry out neo-minimalism, such as the painterly flying rectangle "Temple" from 2002, an oil on canvas done in icy greens by Ilse Gradwohl, and the earth-toned checkerboard "Game of Checkers," an acrylic and pencil on canvas by Francisco Castro Leñero. Also, the kind of thing being done around the world -- not just in Mexico -- is Héctor Falcón's neo-pop diptych of an eyelash curler on one panel with photo-based images of eyes set against a field of traditional wallpaper on the other.

In addition to contemporary art, the show contains examples of modern art, including "Bird Walking" and "Snail," undated abstract bronzes based on animals by Juan Soriano, and 1980s prints by Alfredo Castañeda. Soriano and Castañeda are old masters of Mexican modernism and in the 1950s were among the first to break with the style of the Mexican muralists of the '20s, '30s and '40s.

A rare example of an artist in this show doing uniquely Mexican images is Betsabeé Romero, whose "Crown of Thorns" from 2002 is a bas-relief of Meso-American pictographs carved into an old tire, which was then used as a continuous printing block on a roll of paper.

It's great to see the Museo up and running despite all the adversity of the last few months. Then again, overcoming adversity is apparently something the institution's become very good at.


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