In the summer of 2015, Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign with a speech that labeled Mexican immigrants a bunch of criminals, and that’s why our now-developer-in-chief wants to build a wall across this country’s southern border. This is the context in which Mi Tierra, an exhibit of Mexican-American art at the Denver Art Museum, must be viewed; however, it was not the context in which the show was conceived. At the time, the idea was to celebrate contemporary Latino artists in the Southwest — but current events overtook that concept, and as discussions of Mexico, Mexicans and the border became political, so did the show.
The exhibition was curated by Rebecca Hart, recently named the DAM’s Vicki and Kent Logan Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. The idea for Mi Tierra was already on the docket of proposed exhibits when Hart joined the DAM staff in 2015, but at that point it was little more than a short list of artists. Hart reached out to knowledgeable friends across the country, asking for suggestions of artists who might be included. She considered over a hundred before arriving at the thirteen who are part of the exhibit, in the process deciding to narrow the focus from Latino artists to Mexican-American artists to, finally, emerging Mexican-American artists working conceptually.
Aside from the Audacious exhibit, which is simply a rotation of pieces from the DAM’s permanent collection, Mi Tierra is Hart’s first full-tilt curatorial effort at the museum. She’s given the show the entire fourth level of the Hamilton Building, with each artist assigned a defined section for site-specific installations. Though cultural identity was a key component in choosing the artists, the works themselves do not exemplify the “art of identity” movement; in fact, some seem to have no obvious association with the Mexican-American theme, instead mostly exemplifying international contemporary styles.
Among the most powerful installations, though, are those that take on politics directly, such as Daisy Quezada’s “Desplazamiento/Contención (Displacement/Containment),” a starkly elegant installation with an audio component. Quezada has covered the floor of a trapezoidal space in cast-concrete pavers left roughly finished to represent the bare earth of the borderlands. Near the center is a large found cardboard produce box on a forklift pallet, its sides reinforced by silver-colored straps that run across the open top; inside the box are porcelain garments. Quezada collected the clothing worn by children as they crossed the border, then dipped the garments in porcelain slip and fired them so that the fabric was gone but the porcelain reproductions remained. Taken together, the natural resources represented by the references to produce and to precious metals — the initial impetus for Spanish colonization of the New World — and, within the box, to immigrant children, artfully convey the displacement and containment juxtaposition of the piece’s title. A semi-transparent screen at the back brings in another contradiction: how immigrants are hidden and still visible. The work also includes recordings of the children’s voices.
The Quezada installation is the perfect setup for Jaime Carrejo’s “One-Way Mirror,” a tour de force both visually and conceptually. In a jointed passage space with canted sides, Carrejo has constructed a wall that’s outlined and divided into panels by steel framework holding semi-transparent mirrored acrylic panels. On the opposite walls of the space, Carrejo projects video loops: One side is a view of the border area in Mexico, the other the U.S. side. The landscapes look identical, of course, so Carrejo has inserted clues to distinguish one from the other. The most obvious are the cross-hatching on the Mexican video, inspired by livestock guards, and the horizontal stripes of the American flag seen in the U.S. video. The visual effects of the mirrored wall vary with the level of light being emitted at different points in the videos, so that sometimes the wall is transparent and at other times it’s reflective.
Some pieces bring up issues inherent in championing Mexican culture, most notably Justin Favela’s “Fridalandia,” an entire room done up as a piñata. In this ambitious installation, the walls are covered with looped paper, with the different colors arranged to convey depictions of old Spanish landscape paintings; the paper landscapes surround a paper facsimile of Frida Kahlo’s garden at Casa Azul, populated by potted plants and eccentric garden ornaments. Also delving into Mexican culture is the installation of paintings by Claudio Dicochea that parody traditional casta portraits. The portraits have a racist origin; they depict a Spanish man with a non-white wife, along with their mixed-race child. Dicochea turns them into post-pop renditions of couples with their children, sometimes with ridiculous results: For example, one pairs Fidel Castro with Glenda the Good Witch, and their offspring is a brown Bugs Bunny. Despite the riot of details in these paintings, every element is meticulously done.
Other artists take on the dark side of Mexican culture. Dmitri Obergfell has created a simulation of a Mexican store that he calls “Federal Fashion Mart,” which also serves as a gang chapel. Lit by rows of fluorescent lights with a light-colored linoleum tile floor, the piece really does look like a low-end retail store. Inside the shop are T-shirts, devotional candles, lotions and statuettes, including renditions of the kitschy “praying hands” form that Obergfell has adorned with glitzy fake nails; a stack of chrome car bumpers rises up the wall. There are also statues of saints — all associated with gangs — and a pierced silhouette of the draped skeletal Madonna called Santa Muerte, with an altar of offerings including cans of beer beneath her. For Obergfell, the piece not only captures Mexican culture in general, but includes a personal component: His father, who was absent from his childhood, was incarcerated and later deported to Mexico for his involvement in drug trafficking — which explains the narco-cultural aspects of his installation.
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In a way, everything in Mi Tierra deals with the European colonization of this continent, but no piece addresses it as directly as the aptly named “Destinies Manifest,” a projected digital animation in the Fuse Box by John Jota Leaños. In a few minutes, he conveys the transformation of the United States from a pristine wilderness to a coast-to-coast megalopolis. The style of the animation, with its naive renderings, is charming, but there’s so much going on that the overall effect is complex and sophisticated. I love the way Leaños indicates people and places through easy-to-understand symbols, like the totem poles that locate the Northwest before they’re swallowed up by development. The piece races by, and there’s not a single slow patch.
In presenting Mi Tierra at this time, the DAM is not only promoting tolerance and acceptance of a community currently being stigmatized by some, but also demonstrating that Mexican-American art is one of the strongest cultural forces in our region right now.
Mi Tierra runs through October 22, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, denverartmuseum.org.