I have been thinking about the importance of context for museum shows. I think it is often crucial to consider a museum’s audience and their general knowledge when scheduling shows.
This came up the other day with the opening of a new show at the El Paso Museum of Art called The Legend of the Chromes. This exhibition, which comes from Museo Soumaya in Mexico City, shows some 90 paintings which were made for Mexican calendars from the 30’s to the 70’s.
They were designed to promote Galas company and the calendars and images were freely distributed. In fact, many people at the opening remarked they used to see these images over in Juarez where you could pick them up for free.
The show is beautifully hung, and the large paintings are beautifully rendered scenes of all that is, according to the show’s curator, considered emblematic of the Mexican soul-family, religion, devotion to the country, and Aztec images and Goddesses. These are all done in an extraordinarily sentimental manner and in fact could be seen as something of a top 10 of Mexican clichés. Looking at them today they verge on camp, but I think we are supposed to take them seriously.
The thing is, and here is where context comes in, if you saw this show in Mexico City, then you could admire them, or reflect on what they meant or at the glow that seems to come from within many of the works, and then go out and look at a host of contemporary Mexican art, because from all accounts, there is a huge explosion of super contemporary art going on right now and more and more museums and galleries which give voice to it.
You would have a context for these works and a contrast with them.
Unfortunately, here in El Paso as with much of the rest of the country, there is little awareness of any of this. Mexican contemporary art often means Diego Rivera, and I’m afraid these images currently on display will simply reinforce the general impression of current Mexican thought and its art. There is unfortunately a feeling that Mexico consists of cutesy market scenes, artisanal crafts and overwrought sentimentality. It’s a bit as if we had pictures of the pilgrims picnicking on Mt Rushmore with a bald eagle flying by carrying an American flag in its beak. While this hits the high points of American patriotic thought it scarcely does justice to American artistic creativity, and I’m afraid a similar thing is happening here.
As I said the show itself is fine, and it is a wonderful thing that there has begun to be an exchange between EPMA and Museo Soumaya,which seems to specialize in the daily culture of Mexico as well as painters such as Orozco and Rivera and European painters form the same era, but in the environment in which most people in this city live, it is to be hoped that the EPMA might start challenging people, start exploring some of the really interesting things going on on Mexico rather than showing images which tend to confirm the cliched images people have of that country.