Mexicali, Mexico

Fernando Méndez Corona, ME AND YOU, 2018, oil on canvas, 80 × 80".

Fernando Méndez Corona, ME AND YOU, 2018, oil on canvas, 80 × 80".

Fernando Méndez Corona

Centro Estatal de las Artes, Mexicali

Titled “Baja Soul,” this exhibition collected thirty-two paintings, one sculpture, and two videos in Fernando Méndez Corona’s largest survey to date. Born in Mexicali, capital of the Mexican state of Baja California, in 1977, Corona studied art in Seattle. Since his return in 1998, he has become a kind of godfather of contemporary muralism in the city, as well as a leading figure within the Baja California group of artists who live and work in the border cities Tijuana and Mexicali. The group includes Mely Barragán, Pablo Castañeda, Charles Glaubitz, Jaime Ruiz Otis, and Daniel Ruanova. Frequently exhibited together, these artists move in and out of each other’s work through both influence and collaboration. A recent exhibition at the Escuela Libre de Arquitectura in Tijuana, curated by Thomas Vann Altheimer, dubbed them Artists from the Future, because borders have always been the frontier, suggestive of what is still to come, and these particular artists move with enviable fluidity between cultures, languages, and genres.

Like many of his contemporaries, Corona works across media. A graffiti artist in his youth, he moved easily from the studio back to outdoor work in the late 2000s, producing dozens of bold, arresting murals for government buildings, migrant shelters, small businesses, and nonprofits. His iconic depictions of women’s faces with dark, soulful eyes and mouths protected from the field dust by bandannas were installed on walls and fencing across the city. Softening his style in the early 2010s, Corona painted numerous commissions for high-end restaurants, vineyards, and luxury resorts in the hills of Valle de Guadelupe, the burgeoning new tourist destination in north-central Baja. A serious car accident in 2016 sent him back to the studio. Since then, Corona has concentrated almost exclusively on painting, producing a vast body of beautiful, challenging work that draws variously from street art, the pleasurably flattened realism of Alex Katz and Brian Routh, graphic novels, muralism, and psychological figuration. As he told the photographer Stefan Falke, “I don’t believe much in style. . . . Each work can be as different in media or in subject as it can be. I love to find the peculiar in the globalized world we live in and try to give it notice with the artwork.”

Spanning fifteen years, the works in “Baja Soul” charted the trajectory of the Baja California region, as well as Corona’s painterly inclinations. Border and street culture; Corona’s own post-punk youth; and the new stylish, educated hipsters who are both the devisers and consumers of Baja-style architecture, food, decor, and fashion were all represented. Corona’s subject matter conjures this dynamic and contrasting milieu. For example, Sahuaro (Saguaro), 2019, is a trippy depiction of the enormous cactus, native to the region, against a boldly abstract sky with tiny stars that weep pink droplets. A bat spreads its wings, flying toward a tagged banner. Two swaths of illegible graffiti run like strips of ribbon from the ground. Small pink and yellow geometrical shapes hover. In Me and You, 2018, an Ed Ruscha–inflected parody of relationship misunderstandings, two early-twenty-first-century pay phones labeled ME and YOU stand against a verdant backdrop respectively. In Baja Trip, 2018, a young man in mirrored sunglasses and a white button-down shirt stands in front of a Tecate beer store in the desert. An old-timer in a black pickup looks on as Sunglasses blows smoke rings at the viewer. The blue-gray sky above them is alive with lime- and watermelon-colored triangles, spirals, paisley ferns, and dripping teardrops.

While many of these paintings are deeply invested in place, others focus on states of mind. A challengingly bored twelve-year-old sitting on a sofa bed with his laptop rests one leg on a huge spotted Great Dane in Spider and Desmond, 2019. In Surf’s Up, 2019, a small, simple painting, two surfers carry their boards down a Rosarito Beach alleyway. Were it not for the low-hanging poles and wires near the water’s edge, the seafront setting could almost be Malibu, Santa Barbara, or Encinitas: These vastly different coastal towns of Baja and Southern California share the same Pacific Ocean.