Mexico City


Temistocles 44

Staunch anti-Modernists used to celebrate paintings with an obvious narrative line (such as those by Jorg Immendorff and Eric Fischl), if only as a means of antagonizing those who espouse an “antitheatrical,” formalist approach. Narrativity has since been unhappily linked to content in its yet unhappier quarrel with form. “Chronologies,” a tight international exhibition of recent narrative works, refrained from playing the role of the post-Modern contrarian. The allure of these stylistically hybrid pieces derived less from their subject matter than from the artists’ concern with creating artworks by transforming narrative into an element that is as malleable as paint is in an action painting.

Both Jeffrey Vallance and the artist team Arce/Abaroa devised processes that allowed their untamed tales to unravel, and both were protagonists in the narratives they created. In the Images in the Eyes of the Guadalupe, 1994, Vallance wanted to test out the alleged paranormal phenomenon associated with the Virgin’s shroud in Mexico City. Enlightened more by the Enquirer than by the Scriptures, Vallance’s less-than-epiphaneous imagination “discovered” in the same patterns not the expected religious settings, but apparitions of Elvis, Bob Dylan, and Bigfoot, which he cropped and presented in laser prints. The unsettling effect of Images’ blend of cultural disjunctions is akin to the one produced by the mix of interpersonal disjunctions in Marco Arce’s 42 small sequenced paintings with a script by Eduardo Abaroa after Alain Robbe-Grillet. Chronic Incompetence, 1994, emphasized its dual authorship by lumping a continually shifting story line together with pictures that make unexpected stylistic pirouettes. Memorable in this multilayered collaboration are a mock-transcendental diatribe complemented by abstract paintings interrupted by the misleading appearance of Prince Charles, and a comics-style romance giving way to Philip Guston–ish porn.

Similarly, Cameron Jamie’s Self-Portrait with Bart Simpson, begun in 1992, showed a chain of commissioned portraits which progressively distort an original portrait of the young Angeleno. The picture of a mother and child, the product of Jamie’s last installment of commissions, was processed through, among others, the hands of a local talent who cooks pictures out of pancake dough, the knife of a Styrofoam sculptor, and the airbrush of a photograph colorist. At the chapter’s end, a third character appears first in the schematic shape of two accidental dots on a pancake and finally as a well-rounded baby’s face.

While formalism is often derided as empty, Terence Gower and Marisa Corneja radicalized narrativity to the point where it no longer bestows meaningfulness on an artwork. The Canadian Gower fabricated the tragic tale of an activist gay artist (Untitled [Bashing], 1992–94) around the ungifted hero’s innocuous abstract drawings and make-believe memorabilia. These mock artworks were only incidental to the fictitious artist’s misadventures and thus laid bare the fact that all pictures are unavoidably narrative at some level—a quality also suggested by Cornejo’s Fire over the Lake, 1994, a compilation of her uneven student work in which a cryptic autobiography is encoded.

Chronologies brought together artists from Mexico, the U.S., and Canada. Such opportune invocation of the united colors of NAFTA secured it a Rockefeller sponsorship. Better still, the integrationist spirit was also expressed in the exhibition’s demonstrating that the reflexivity of formalist works, the literariness of post-Modernism, and the cultural commentary of the latest post-Conceptualism are not, by definition, incompatible.

Yishai Jusidman