Mexico City

Marcos Castro, El levantamiento de la Coatlicue (The Rise  of the Coatlicue) (detail), 2018, acrylic and chalk on wall, dimensions variable. From “Murales temporales.”

Marcos Castro, El levantamiento de la Coatlicue (The Rise of the Coatlicue) (detail), 2018, acrylic and chalk on wall, dimensions variable. From “Murales temporales.”

“Murales temporales”

Galería Karen Huber

What? An all-male show about mural painting? Really? I wondered if “Murales temporales” (Temporary Murals) was a deliberate effort to keep with the gentlemen-only tradition of twentieth-century Mexican muralism. But even so, I couldn’t think of a decent reason for a team of three curators (Andrea Bustillos, Karen Huber, and Alejandro Romero) to put together a show about a whole genre of painting that leaves women artists out. In any case, the show was pretty indulgent, taking muralism and its long history in Mexico and relocating it within a gallery space to question ideas of permanence, ownership, compromises made for patrons, and the visibility of private versus public spaces. These are all valid questions, but they are also easily answerable: When murals are no longer permanent and can be displayed in a gallery—where they are likely to be seen only by art-world denizens, and, if they are not ephemeral but are portable and sellable, are likely thereafter to be shut off from public view in a collector’s home—they are no different from any other contemporary art that is more committed to the market than to an ideology.

While an exhibition on murals might seem to imply, at minimum, that the works on view are paintings on walls, this show also included sculptures that related to the wall only by resting against or hanging on it. One of them was the artist duo Tezontle’s Skewer (all works cited, 2018), a group of stalactite-shaped slices of foam dipped in concrete and painted black, suspended from what looked like a brass curtain rod. More ambitious was Luis Hampshire’s Demoler los días (Demolish the Days), a vertical piece made of painted wood, mirrors, and paper cutouts that cast a shadow of the word DEMOLER on the wall. At the bottom of this totem pole–like structure was a tiny sculpture of a man, naked except for his sneakers and some bandages, struggling to hold the structure aloft while staring at himself in a mirror.

Perhaps due to my Mexican-art indoctrination, I enjoyed this one. I prefer my muralism with some conflict—as, for instance, in David Alfaro Siqueiros’s extremely melodramatic depiction of a fiery, bloody, capitalist apocalypsein Portrait of the Bourgeoisie, 1939–40, in the office headquarters of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union nearby. One artist who succeeded in bringing that kind of drama to this show was Marcos Castro. His three-part work El levantamiento de la Coatlicue (The Rise of the Coatlicue), made with pink, orange, and yellow chalk and acrylics over a black background, was based on the story of the discovery of a now famous statue of the Aztec Mother of the Gods in Mexico City in the late eighteenth century. The Spanish rulers found this object monstrous, but the indigenous population began to worship it, lighting candles and offering it flowers. Only by reburying the statue could the Spaniards make them stop. In the first section of Castro’s mural, two figures with their faces covered toss Molotov cocktails amid a ravenous forest fire. The second section portrays an exploding volcano, while the third climactically shows Coatlicue emerging from smoke and flames like a vengeful Godzilla. What the conflict is about and who or what the projectiles are directed at are unclear. Perhaps at nature? Or at the politically instrumentalized narratives of a pre-Hispanic past? The result is nevertheless entertaining, as most narrative murals tend to be. On the pretext of reformulating muralism, “Murales temporales” included pieces that might just as well be called paintings, sculptures, or installations. Aren’t there more pressing, less formal questions to ask of muralism than what happens to it in a gallery context, especially in a time of political unrest and the co-opting of public art by corporate and state interests? An urgent question would be: Have you heard of any women artists?

Gaby Cepeda