El Paso

Andrea Bowers, Families Belong Together, 2018, cardboard, LED lights, 59 × 110 × 6".  From “After Posada: Revolution.”

Andrea Bowers, Families Belong Together, 2018, cardboard, LED lights, 59 × 110 × 6". From “After Posada: Revolution.”

“After Posada: Revolution”

El Paso Museum of Art

José Guadalupe Posada’s influence on Mexican visual culture was profound, but a comprehensive understanding of his body of work has remained elusive. Because many of his iconic images, including the calaveras (images of human skulls) for which he is famous, originally appeared in newsprint, on broadsheets, or in chapbooks, they are delicate and relatively tiny, and to display them can be difficult. In “After Posada: Revolution,” an installation of more than one hundred prints by Posada—admittedly a sliver of the approximately twenty thousand prints he produced, primarily between the 1870s and his death, in 1913—quantity enhanced quality. The selection, arranged thematically and spanning the later part of Posada’s career, demonstrated the rigor of the artist’s practice. The pictures also spoke to the centrality of print culture in Mexico during decades of political upheaval. In addition to illustrating commercially popular games and corridos (songs), Posada created visual complements to the journalistic output of popular newspapers, mostly for the Mexico City–based publisher Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. The stories Posada illustrated range from accounts of natural disasters, to lampoons of the Mexican bourgeoisie, to commentaries on the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz and the death of the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. One wall in the El Paso Museum of Art was devoted to Posada’s more sensational images of, for example, murderesses, Satanic demons, evil spirits, and a baby-eating madman. These and other prints marry images of Mexico with the Western print traditions embodied by William Blake and Francisco Goya. Posada employed his calaveras (which he did not invent but did more to popularize than any other artist of his generation) to call out political corruption as well as to lambaste bourgeois frivolities, including those of his own publisher.

Posada died three years into the Mexican Revolution, but his liberal politics and satirical portrayals of political leaders and events contributed to revolutionary sentiments. Although he worked on small wood or metal plates, his imagery is meticulously detailed, sharply critical, and highly legible; contemporary artists clearly have learned from his graphic skills and democratizing ethos. In the cavernous gallery space that housed “After Posada,” two large-scale installations of existing and commissioned works exemplified the artist’s legacy. Andrea Bowers paid homage by rendering in marker on cardboard one of Posada’s rare portrayals of a female revolutionary soldier. The materials of street protests appeared again in her three signs, lit by candy-colored bulbs and framed in cardboard, which flashed slogans from our own political moment: SANCTUARY, FAMILIES BELONG TOGETHER, ABOLISH ICE. Bowers thus adopts Posada’s liberal worldview and championing of anti-tyrannical government policies on a spectacular scale.

On the other side of the gallery space, Cruz Ortiz depicted fictional characters—as Posada did with the middle-class everyman Don Chepito Marihuano, popular in Mexican comics—tromping through a fantastical landscape called TexMexlandia. In these large relief-printed scenes, Yanaguana Girl wields her mother’s machete while Porvenir Boy traipses over a hill littered with skulls and a snake in search of something—perhaps his family. Ortiz’s installation also featured a small printing press on a wheeled cart, its portable radio prepared to transmit songs into the open air as the cart travels across TexMexlandia, much as street vendors used to sing out the day’s headlines when peddling street gazettes featuring Posada’s prints. The inspiration for Ortiz’s work is clearly southwest Texas, the borderland that awaits visitors to the El Paso Museum as soon as they leave its confines. It was fitting that Bowers’s and Ortiz’s works felt slightly inert within the space of the museum; they were ready to seek the messy world, to proclaim their messages to the masses.