Mexico City

Helen Escobedo, Eclipse, 1968, lacquered wood, 79 1⁄8 × 29 7⁄8 × 28 3⁄4".

Helen Escobedo, Eclipse, 1968, lacquered wood, 79 1⁄8 × 29 7⁄8 × 28 3⁄4".

Helen Escobedo

Most narratives of Mexican art from the late 1960s through the early ’80s focus on the collectives known as Los Grupos and describe an almost caricatural display of macho anti-institutionalism and political commitment. These dominant histories overlook the work of contemporaries who shared those groups’ critical views but expressed them with a lighter touch, among them Helen Escobedo (1934–2011). This exhibition, “The Potential of Sculpture,” delicately shattered such historical clichés, bringing together more than seventy newly restored works—maquettes, sculptures, paintings, drawings, and collages—that illuminated Escobedo’s sardonic inquiries into the interplay of monuments and public space.

The exhibition’s main room displayed clusters of works illustrating the diversity of Escobedo’s production: Geometric abstraction and visual poetry converge in Homenaje a octubre (Homage to October), 1978, a maquette sculpture in which the letters of the word october, supported on a geometric structure, repeat and invert in various configurations. Here, the plastic quality of language is the driving force. Five o’s seem to fall onto the plinth and lie in a somber arrangement that resembles the Olympic rings—an oblique reference, perhaps, to the killing of hundreds of students by police in the weeks prior to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Earlier works, such as Eclipse, 1968—a sequence of semi-perforated panels lacquered in colored stripes that create a strong vibration in the beholder’s eye—dialogue with Latin American Op art. Other works are mock-ups of public sculptures Escobedo hoped to build, though very few were ever realized.

While these projects’ incompletion could be regarded as a failure, it opened a new path for the artist: Collage became the ultimate tool for speculating on the irruptive potential of sculpture. Abstraction provided Escobedo with independence from any purpose of national commemoration and, furthermore, allowed her to imaginatively infiltrate public spaces where memory has been systematically hijacked by the state. For instance, the sculpture Doble barda caída (Double Fallen Fence), 1979, with its two collapsing semicircles of slender pillars, and the related drawing Barda caída (Fallen Fence), 1979, evoke the neoclassical style of the Benito Juárez Hemicycle in Mexico City’s historic center. The collage Yo, monumento! (I, Monument!), 1979, pushes the irreverent tone to profane levels: Escobedo herself stands on a plinth at the center, replacing the revered national hero.

The gallery’s back room showed two series. One was a grouping of nine unframed black-and-white laser prints (undated and not on the gallery checklist), in which some of the maquettes and sculptures from the previous exhibition room appeared as if built and placed in public parks, in front of landmark museums, or surrounded by towering office buildings. As a technique, photomontage enabled the artist to create works in situations that allowed them to achieve their full potential. The very unfeasibility of some projects—because of money restraints, bureaucracy, or lack of time—became a liberating force as Escobedo started conceiving public sculptures for any place, regardless of their actual viability. The second series, from 1979 to 1993, proves how fertile this realization was, with Pop-influenced photo-collages of monuments to everyday subjects in diverse landscapes. The artist presents monuments to childhood (children dancing around an ice-cream cone on a pebbled surface), an unlit cigarette (a cigarette standing column-like in the middle of an avenue), a great taco (placed inside a Victorian courtyard), and monuments themselves (a mix of archaeological ruins and construction materials around and on top of a Mesoamerican pyramid).

Escobedo likely found inspiration for her imaginary monuments in a project she conducted with photographer Paolo Gori. In the 1970s, they traveled across Mexico, recording every official memorial they encountered, and later published a selection of their discoveries in the book Mexican Monuments: Strange Encounters (1989). If representations of (male) politicians, army leaders, and other dignitaries abound in their chronicle, Escobedo and Gori also found mundane figures such as giant octopuses, floating shrimp, and cowboy hats. Escobedo’s invitation to see beyond the established narratives is still worth accepting, and still a challenge within the local art scene.