The vibrant pulse of Mexico City’s cultural renaissance didn’t miss a beat during La Semana de Arte (Art Week) (February 4-9, 2020), tenaciously ticking throughout the city from the mega blockbuster Zona Maco fair to the edgier Feria de Arte Material, and onto neighborhood streets enlivened by a heady stream of exhibitions. Besides the fairs, Mexico City’s new-millenial status as an international art hub was evident in the growing community of young expat artists and gallerists drawn to warm sunshine, an inexpensive lifestyle and, most important, an openness to diversity. Add to this the fluid and bustling mix of international galleries with emerging and well-established Mexican venues and you have a juggernaut; a brisk global marketplace enticing collectors and art aficionados of every stripe.
The annual Material Art Fair, in particular, allows one to view all these elements afloat in a cultural petri dish of sorts; to watch an evolving art organism spread its tentacles from this indigenous landscape to New York, Berlin, London, Stockholm, Tokyo and beyond. This cultural mashup was much on display in an eccentric performance that took place on the sun-drenched Plaza de La República. Paloma (2020), by Estonian artist Kris Lemsalu (b.1985), in collaboration with her American husband, musician Kyp Malone and Mexican designer Barbara Sánchez-Kane, was organized by arts performer and producer Michelangelo Miccolis. It featured a bicycle-propelled figure of a giant paloma, a bird-symbol of peace made with Acapulco chairs and lilies, set against the Monument to the Revolution. Malone’s amorphous instrumental accompaniment to the plaintive refrains of Mexican singer Luis Pablo, spirited this fantasy dove from the summit of the plaza down to the Frontón Mexico, the Material exhibition space. Lemsalu and Sánchez-Kane, dressed in lavender suits embellished with plastic eggs, followed behind strewing lily petals towards an appreciative crowd.
Hoping to create a niche for lesser known Latin and international artists, Brett Schultz, Creative Director of the Material Fair, and his current partners, Isa Castilla and Rodrigo Feliz, have grown the shoestring project begun 2014. It took guts to time this exhibition to run simultaneously with Zona Maco and insist on affordability. But so was it great marketing strategy to welcome international well-recognized gallerists to participate, giving them a venue for their own emerging artists that large numbers of collectors were unlikely to otherwise see.
And no other fair looks like Material. Counter to the generic-fair labyrinth of white cubes, Material occupies the Frontón México, an Art Deco jai alai arena imaginatively reconfigured to echo street markets, a procession of open stalls where vendors hawk everything from vibrant embroidered wearables to car parts. Three levels of scaffolding— a series of Piranesi-like catwalks, ramps and stairs— support exhibition booths flanking narrow walkways around the perimeter of each floor. These simultaneously open and intimate spaces foster easy hands-on camaraderie, something reflected in the exhibition’s focus on the physical connection between the artist and the art object. Hence the Material title.
This casual and playful ambiance encourages easy visual conversations between the emerging and the arrived. For example, textile artists Cecy Gómez (b.1992) and Yann Gerstberger (b.1983) recall their ethnic roots as ancient craft and modernist art respectively. Muy Gallery, a recently formed initiative promoting the works of Native artists, represents Gómez who preserves the weaving traditions and mythologies of her Tsotsil-Mayan community in a direct, naive style. Nevertheless, her unique fabric works —made on cloth from traditional skirts worn by indigenous women, and with natural plant dyes—convey contemporary feminist and ecological themes. Works by French artist Yann Gerstberger (b.1983) represented by the well-established gallery, OMR, are by contrast elegantly conceived in the visual language of early modern abstraction. For his enormous tapestry, Untitled (2020), he hand-dyed burrs of cotton mops, glued them to vinyl and combined them with local fabric finds to create imagery steeped in Yoruba ritual and Nigerian folklore.
Mexico-based galleries accounted for twenty-five percent of the exhibitors. Other stand-outs among these venues included LuLu gallery, a small gem co-founded by Chris Sharp who selected a series of gorgeous paintings by Argentine-born artist Santiago de Paoli (b. 1978). De Paoli’s small luminous canvases consist of sensuous, erotic and eerie abstract figures recalling early modern isms, but dwell in a surreal world of their own. Stepping from here into the installation by Irak Morales (b.1981) crossed the line between sensual eroticism and porn. Represented by Neri/Barranco, a Mexican project billing itself as a “nomadic gallery with no physical space,” Morales’s work comments on pulp porn as, he said, “a young Mexican man’s source of sexual information in the 60’s.” His multi-media installation, “Deme 3×5, con tode y pallevar!!!” (2020) included cut-outs from vintage pornographic comic books, some shaped as pork-chops suspended from the ceiling as mobiles, others plastic-wrapped around Mezcal bottles, or collaged within the frames of religious altarpieces.
Political commentary was most notable in an interactive project by Mexican artist Erick Beltrán (b.1974) at Labor gallery, known for controversial art. Visitors to his installation, Nothing But the Truth (2020), were invited to write down a lie in an open notebook. Throughout each fair day these lies were compiled, printed as giant posters in a variety of typographies, and plastered to every inch of exhibition wall. Writ large lies, little and grandiose, merged and, like our daily confrontations with distorted social and network media news, they read as new alternative truths.
Gabriel Orozco’s (b.1962) work, Tracing Money (2020) at the internationally well-established gallery Kurimanzutto politicizes the graphic form and symbolism of money. Orozco made prints from layered banknotes— double exposed transparencies merging the currency images of different nations into single blurred composites. Along with drawings, this extensive installation contrasts paper bills as historical and cultural symbols; their ephemeral qualities disturbingly underscoring the existential fluidity of money as a global vehicle of power.
Exhibiting international galeries represented works by Mexican artists and those from their own countries. New York’s Thierry Goldberg Gallery featured paintings by Mexican artist Maria Fragoso (b.1995) and included a triptych featuring an extended family crowded around a typical Mexican dining room, La Peor es Nada (The Worst is Nothing) (2017), unmistakably alludes to the Last Supper. In it Fragoso meshes a comical depiction of loving and dysfunctional family life with the tradition of Mexican mural painting.The pull of one’s culture is also embedded in works by the team of Lina Mazenett (b.1989) and David Quiroga (b.1985), Colombian artists represented at Instituto de Visión in Bogatá, a gallery that seeks to trace the Mexican roots of conceptual thinking in Latin America. The artists’ jewel-like reliefs replicating Aztec designs are made of green circuit boards mimicking the brilliant patina of fine jade.
Yngvild Saeter (b.1986), the solo artist featured at Stockholm’s Andréhn-Schiptjenko gallery, makes much scarier outsized jewelry-inspired sculptures from motorcycle parts that she reconstructs, paints and embellishes with feathers, chains, metal spikes and metal rivets. Saeter says these works relate to the euphoric life/death moment she experienced during brain surgery when she momentarily “died,” then revived. She recalls that mystical lapse as a vision in which she was surrounded by motorcycles. Thus did the biker cult fuel her art: otherworldly helmets, masks, breast plates and shields, the regalia of punk or gothic vampires, perhaps, but like the artist’s strange ordeal, as alluring as they are terrifying.
Milan-based gallery Clima featured the startling work of Italian artist Matteo Nasini (b. 1976) who also channels the dream world, but from a clinical perspective. His installation of sculpture and tapestry sources data from encephalograms taken while a subject is dreaming. Using a variety of hi-tech software he translates these data into sound, tapestry, and porcelain sculpture using a 3D printing process. Nasini’s intriguing practice eerily suggests that our thoughts have a hidden structural armature, that they are not as ephemeral as we think, and that we can somehow render them immortal as sculptural form. If this boggled your mind, and if you needed a break from cerebrally processing the riotous visual party of this art fair, you would happily aim for Aria McManus’s (b.1989) Relieviation Works (2017). McManus, an artist and product designer, created an installation for Los Angeles-based gallery AA/LA: a seemingly mundane office environment with hidden healing mechanisms including a calendar with deliciously edible date pages, and an illuminated name plate radiating the physical and mental nourishment of sunshine.
Coincidentally, the current Whitney Museum exhibition in New York, Vida Américana, which explores the impact of Mexican muralists — Clemente, Orozco and Riviera—on American art, bows to both Mexico City’s vibrant art moment and the art historical importance of its cultural heritage. But it’s perhaps more important that the city is today a magnet for contemporary art and artists, not because of cheap space, sunny days, and hungry collectors, but because of the rationale driving such efforts as the Fiera de Arte Material: from its architecture to its openess to diversity, it represents a metaphoric ideal for a much needed world without walls.