Friend Zona

Christina Catherine Martinez around Mexico City's art fairs

“IS SOMETHING SPECIAL HAPPENING in Mexico City this week?” Rachel Kushner asked. I introduced myself to her during Laura Owens’s opening at House of Gaga, a day before Material and Zona Maco began. Kushner, in town to support her friend, was somewhat surprised to be running into so many other Angelenos. Owens’s dreamy abstractions, atypically small, hung well in the modest gallery—paintings and watercolors the size you’d hang in a breakfast nook, set off by custom wallpapers bearing cartoonish lemons and stripes in rogue geometries. A tiny rat in a hat and coat was painted in the corner. “It’s the year of the rat,” Owens said. “There are eight rats hidden throughout the gallery.” 

I met a friend, the artist Jorge Mujica, at an un-hip cantina in Roma that François Ghebaly, a former Material exhibitor, told me about two years ago. I am loathe to give up the name because it has become something of a port of refuge; on any given night during the fair week, you can find a weary dealer curled at the bar, nursing a beer or nibbling fried crickets as respite from both the dyspepsia from street tacos and the company of the favored art-world alimentary establishment Contramar. (Sotheby’s, which holds an annual collector’s lunch there, had reserved all of the tables for the week, but I showed up alone and got a seat at the bar next to two gentlemen discussing one’s recent heart transplant. “People are shocked when I tell them I got open-heart surgery here. Americans think they’re the baseline of quality for everything.”) Jorge was in town to install at the second edition of QiPO, an alternative art fair that I’d heard was actually the alternative art fair. I relayed this information the next night to the guests gathered at Páramo to celebrate the artist Federico Herrero’s just-opened show at Lulu—including Pablo León de la Barra, Frieze cofounder Matthew Slotover, and Instituto de Visión cofounder Beatriz López. “That’s funny,” said Lulu codirector Chris Sharp. “Material used to be the alternative to Zona Maco, and now there is an alternative to Material.” It is funny, the flow of cachet.

Curator and UKS Director Rhea Dall.

Like Owens at Gaga, Herrero’s work at Lulu was uncharacteristically downscaled, and powerfully so—his paintings are semiotic semaphores lifted from the patchwork of colors that make up the provisional paint jobs dotting the streets of his native San José. Parts of Mexico City have this topography, as do sundry ungentrified remainders of East Los Angeles. Capturing it without preciousness or sentimentality is probably very hard, but as with all good, hard things, Herrero makes it look easy. “You know there’s no military in Costa Rica,” he told me. “We haven’t had a military since 1949.” I asked him what it’s like. “I like it. It’s funky.”

I showed up later in the afternoon during the preview of Zona Maco, situated in the sprawling Centro Citibanamex. Dealers and VIPs had scattered. A group of at least a dozen American tourists marched in with me, led by a man in a vest who was carrying a sign that said “BOSTON” in large letters, and yelling at them to keep together. Amid the two hundred booths, I found the balloon-ish figures of Fernando Botero at Galería Duque Arango, and discovered the “artoons” of Pablo Helguera, who created a full “deck” of fifty-two art-world loteria cards for Galería Enrique Guerrero. Number ten, “El Botero Collector,” depicts a Botero-esque caricature carrying a Botero. On my way out, a zaftig redhead in navy-blue separates yelled at her companions before mounting a private bus. “Nobody bought a poncho? Oh my god, I tried on like three ponchos.”

Artists Santiago de Paoli and Lewis Hammond.

Later that night, hundreds gathered under clamp lights for an opening from the nomadic design gallery MASA, which was held in a crumbling Beaux-Arts manse populated with furniture and objects from artists who blur the line between the two, including Misha Kahn, Alma Allen, and Tania Pérez Córdova. When the mezcal ran out, many shuffled over to Café Paraíso, its Insta-ready interior all palm-leaf wallpaper beset by pink neon. Everyone was patted down; the women’s handbags were subject to particular scrutiny. A female security guard opened each and every pouch and parcel in my purse, confiscating a pill case that I assured her contained only ibuprofen and melatonin (also Adderall). She wrote my name on a clear plastic cup, dropped the pills in, said they could be picked up on my way out, then placed the cup on a small shelf alongside dozens of other cups full of pills bearing other women’s names—one of the most poignant readymade sculptures I’ve ever seen. “Fuck. I have to take one of these every six hours,” another partier said, messing with her watch.

“Once you start doing them, it’s hard to stop,” Steve Hanson of China Art Objects said of art fairs. Hanson and Tuesday Yates are still in the process of reopening the iconic once-upon-a-Chinatown space in Mérida, Mexico, after uprooting from Los Angeles. While Zona Maco spread its constituents across vast acreages of convention hall space, Material packed in its seventy-eight participants in a three-story scaffolding structure designed by architectural firm APRDELESP in the main hall of Frónton, a sports and entertainment-leaning Art Deco venue. China Art Objects had secured a floor-level booth and was showing an enigmatic video-cum-collage by Frances Stark, part of her darkly tongue-in-cheek series on US-backed interventions abroad titled “US Greatest Hits Mixtape: Volume 1.” Another standout was the Paris-based nonprofit Shivers Only, devoted to the half-embroidered, half-painted assemblages of Angelique Heidler, who can conjure a pig’s ear with just a fold or two of gingham. I stopped short at Kayum Ma’ax’s paintings—Henri Rousseau–ish, but incisive—before learning that his Chiapas-based Galería MUY, which focuses on contemporary indigenous art, had won this year’s Hennessy Award for Best Project. I tried to ask Kayum about them in my halting guera dialect. He shook my hand and laughed. 

Double-dippers such as OMR, Kurimanzutto, and LABOR, which each had booths at both Maco and Material, reserved their more idiosyncratic projects for the latter. For LABOR, Erick Beltrán transformed the booth into an on-site print workshop. Visitors were invited to write phrases—to wit, “UNEMPLOYMENT IN THE US IS UNDER 10%,” “I PISS SEMEN,” etc.—in a notebook, which sign painters and printing assistants then translated into Kruger-ish banners and signs that took over the booth. I asked the associate director if they were selling. She nodded, and after a beat added: “Buyers can commission a custom banner with their own phrase,” leaving one to wonder where all the crowdsourced stuff would end up.

Artists Rushern Baker IV and Jorge Mujica at Qipo.

“Excuse me, do you have any drugs you can sell me, by any chance?” a nice young man asked me at Material’s opening night afterparty. No one did—we’d all received Café Paraíso–caliber frisks at the entrance. The warehouse space was packed but genteel, with people shouting small talk over thumping music and Hennessy and Cokes. Artist Kris Lemsalu was still in clown makeup and milkmaid braids from her performance with designer Bárbara Sánchez-Kane and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio. “The art fairs, they are emotionally exhausting,” she said, before detailing her plans for the immanent second edition of Frieze Los Angeles. “What keeps you in LA?” she wanted to know.  

The next day I finally made it over to QiPO, where little pill-bottle sculptures in glass cases were arrayed on the ground floor. I wanted to know more, and found artist Antonio Zaragosa, who declined a photograph. “Not me, the work,” he said, pushing his slime-green hair back and laughing at my Spanish. He led me to another small sculpture of two cornflower-blue pills laid along a slim glass pipe in a wooden case. “Truvada and crack,” he explained. “The lunch for the people who work all day.” The fair, housed in another tumbledown Porfiriato-era complex, hosted twenty alternative and artist-run projects from Mexico, California, New York, and Germany. The entrance was next to a magic shop, with doves in a little gold cage out front. Cofounder Laura Resendiz introduced QiPO to me as “the child of a gallery and a museum, but we want it to be open. . . . There’s no bouncers and guards asking if you’re on the list.” My pills, for the moment, were safe.  

Artist Michael Günzberger performing in Cantina Material.

Artists Isabel Yellin and James Krone.

The author, Rachel Kushner, and Laura Owens.

China Art Objects cofounder Steve Hanson and Tuesday Yates.

Sign painters for Erick Beltrán's Nothing But the Truth project at LABOR's Material booth.

QiPO Executive Director Laura Reséndiz.

Artist Kris Lemsalu.

Pablo Helguera, Artoons. 54 Cartas de Lotería, 2019, (detail).

View of Laura Owens's installation at House of Gaga (detail).

Material's warehouse party.

Artist Kayum Ma'ax.

Artist Federico Herrero and Lulu codirector Chris Sharp.