Los Angeles

Mexican Folk Art

La Jolla Art Cen­ter

The “love and death of flowers” which the Mexican poet, Carlos Pellicer terms a basic quality of his people, this juxtaposition of bloom and decay, is metamorphosed with sardonic humor in the folk arts of Mexico. Humor masks the fearful realization of the ephemeral nature of life and the imminence and omnipotence of death. The skeleton “calavera” mouths his cigar with a smug leer; two ghostly figures clad in natty evening clothes clasp arms in a casual stroll.

Visitors to the recent excellent display of Mexican Folk Art at the Art Center in La Jolla must have been struck with the peculiar sensitivity evidenced by these naive artisans to their material. However humble the medium, a tree root trans­formed into a fantastic creature or the earths of Oaxaca fashioned into a pol­ished black vessel as refined as a Greek amphora, the Mexican is intimately in­formed by natural materials. Although Mexico is a nation richly endowed with semi-precious minerals and stone, the simple artisan chooses that which sur­rounds him––bark, earth, paper, na­turally colored wool––to manipulate into forms expressing his religious val­ues or festival humor. When he picks up his brush to decorate a surface with such exquisite patterns, in blazing ani­line colors, as emerge from the studio of Heron Martinez of Acatlan, Puebla, or whether that brush employs the black and terra cotta slip ornamenting with floral and animal forms the creamy un­glazed surface of a Talimán, Guerrero animal, the craftsman evinces a similar sense of rightness in combining form with decoration.

However, this is not an art of the mu­seum. Although the rhythmic sonorities of harp, marimba and guitar animated the Art Center’s handsome galleries, objects seemed unfortunately wrenched from context. These gaily colored forms are customarily destined for a brief du­ration––and often an explosive end. The papier-mache bull carried about precariously on the shoulders of a vil­lage daredevil as it spits rockets and pinwheels in all directions is often part of a fiesta in which a “castillo” or tower of fireworks is ignited stage by stage as a multi-colored self-destroying sculp­tured form. The delightfully imaginative winged dragons, lizards, and bulls, called “alabrije”, are destined to be exploded as symbols of evil before the Easter celebration. The Mexican peasant is not an acquisitive being; he uses his art and accepts its brevity of existence.

Malcolm McClain, instructor of sculp­ture at the center, collected most of the material in two journeys into the Mexi­can interior. McClain, who resides in Tijuana, adept at Spanish as well as a fine ceramist and sculptor in his own right, expressed his fascination with the complex and omnipresent iconography––its sources and translation. The stylized symmetrical figure, white indi­cating its significance as “good” magic, symbolizes a protective power emanat­ing from a child’s blanket woven by Juan del Monte from Sierra del Puebla. Crudely carved heads terminate staffs used as witchcraft fetishes by the “curandero.” Jagged bark-paper cut-outs of deities of corn, squash, and avocado, are still used to invoke sympathetic treatment by these pre-Hispanic agricultural deities in the mountains surround­ing the colonial city of churches, Puebla.

Although Mexican Indian artisans do not adopt a particularly inventive approach to materials, several classes of objects exemplify interesting tech­niques. The Huichol yarn panels of Na­yarit are fashioned of parallel rows of brilliant yarns affixed to thin panels of wood with beeswax. Both these panels and the similar “Ojo de Dios” crosses are offrendas, petitioning the Gods for success in the hunt or for rain or fertility and placed in designated caves and houses. Their “tree of life” sym­bols, obviously phallic references, are surrounded by sinuously shaped birds, animals, and serpents. Representing the “pintura rayada” method of lacquer decoration, a traditional technique from Olfnala, is a large chest and small lacquered tray, the former obtained from this isolated community with great dif­ficulty. It abounds in sprightly animal forms alternating with checkered squares. Over a dry coat of lacquer, a contrasting layer is applied, incised and peeled away to reveal the color beneath. Mexican craftsmen have always been interested in the sculptural possibilities of tin, but surely the tin roosters from Hidalgo composed of a multitude of slashed and bent forms utilize the po­tential of the humble material to its ultimate. Here again the projecting sharp silhouette suggests a barbed wit; the funny overweening roosters edge toward the Satanic.

The contemporary eye, familiar with Oceanic and African art, can no longer view the folk art of Mexico with amused toleration as a frivolous production of “curios.” These bold forms, vividly hued in primaries, sharp yellow-green and magenta, brilliant orange and purple and decorated with unfaltering brush­work, appeal as a spontaneous creation of an esthetically sensible people. Undiluted by sophisticated equivocation, unrelated forms are joined audaciously. The curve is suddenly reversed, inter­rupted by sharp undercuts, broken by deep serrations. Emphasis is placed upon external contour rather than on subtle involutions of interior form. Sur­faces are covered with elaboration in a display of “horror vacui.” As in the more self-conscious Mexican colonial styles, folk art bristles with derivations from the sentimental idealism of Spanish, Italian and French influences. But of greater interest are pronounced allu­sions to Oriental, to Polynesian and Moorish forms and decorative motifs. It is obvious that the works of art and artisanship issuing from the provinces of Mexico represent an enormous range of stylistic affinities––from the most realism to the purest formal simplicity.

Delores Yonker