The Border From the Border

Although the Transborder Biennial features the same artists in both museums, the two halves at the El Paso Museum of Art and the Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juarez seem almost two completely different shows.
This may be due,in part, to the different size of the two spaces. Sometimes the more intimate space of the Juarez Museum provides a better venue with the relative coziness providing a certain coherence often lost in the larger more industrial feeling museum in El Paso. In this case, however the larger museum affords the opportunity for larger installations and videos which would overwhelm the smaller venue.
Angel Cabrales’s interactive piece “Hole in One” which allows one to sit in a chair and literally shoot a small rubber ball across to a golf green with a Mexican flag sticking up from the cup would be nearly impossible in the smaller museum while it only takes up a small corner here.
I went to the opening in Juarez first and was, frankly, disappointed in the show because it seemed to involve way too many conceptual pieces which failed to communicate and which seemed to involve some private vision whose point or significance I was often unable to discern. This was certainly not true of all the works which included some very fine pieces, but I just felt it as a whole a bit cold.
This feeling completely disappeared over in El Paso. Even though these were the same artists and not all of the pieces worked, (Some of the found objects should have perhaps been better left in situ) those pieces were subsumed into a larger totality. Unlike previous years, there was a stated theme for this show which was, not unsurprisingly, the border itself, and in this show one had a real feel for a border as seen and felt by the artists who live here. There were installations like the aforementioned Hole in One, Gil Rocha-Rocheli created a full size foosball game pitting police against sneakers moving forward; there were large spaces for videos of personal trips into the border, as well as large works taken from archival photos. Some of these also appeared in the show across the border but were of necessity much smaller.
Sometimes the smaller venue was better. Zeke Peña’s witty drawings work everywhere, but were perhaps a bit better served by the smaller Juarez museum museum in Juarez rather than in El Paso where they seemed a bit dwarfed. On the other hand, Adrian Esparza’s deconstructed sarapes looked good in both places, but the larger space allowed him an even more impressive installation.
The border is a huge subject but the show provides a visceral feeling for the border by artists who live here, and the show particularly in El Paso brought this feeling into coherence. This sense of unity and cohesion might have been due to the space, but it is just as likely due in large part to recently hired EPMA curator Kate Green who has impressive degrees, and tons of museum experience, most recently in Marfa. This is her first show for the El Paso museum and is one of the best things to happen here in years. It is also possible that because I saw this first in Juarez I already had a certain feeling for the show. In any case, it is important to see the works in both venues not only to see the complete show, but also to see how the different spaces can shape the perception of the work.
The show will be up through Mexican Independence day Sept. 16th-david sokolec

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Kress Collection Rehang Misguided

The Kress collection at the El Paso Museum of Art, comprising works roughly from the 14th through the 18th century, is a remarkable treasure and has often quite correctly been called the crown jewel of the museum. Contrary to what some have said it really was rehung some 8 years ago along traditional historically linear lines with each room painted a different color to further emphasize the different time periods on view. This was not all that dramatic a change, but simply neatly divided the work up in historical categories.
Apparently the current administration decided the collection needed a complete reorganization, received a grant from the Kress foundation to do so and hired Dr. Elizabeth Dwyer, who fairly recently received her PhD from the University of Virginia for the task.
She decided to hang the collection thematically and to that end chose to hang the works based on the categories of “Madonna and Child”, “Honored Saints” “Sacred Stories” and the “Rise of Secular Art.”. This latter includes the sections world views, Rococo portraits, Nature’s outlines and grand portraits.
While the section of secular portraits and domestic scenes are fine, it is the art in the first rooms which focus on religious content rather than the treatment of that content and, more appallingly, explanatory notes which are too often mere religious propaganda and proselytizing which makes this current approach extremely troubling.
While individual exhibitions with a limited shelf-life are often created to call attention to content or to some link between different artworks not immediately apparent, more permanent displays, such as this is intended to be generally are designed to call attention to the skill involved or to historically important works. As such the display of religious works of art in public museums has always been universally acceptable precisely because museums, at least good ones, take care to take an objective, non-religious view of the art regardless of the relation individual patrons might have with the content.
The display would perhaps not be quite so objectionable were it not for the accompanying informational cards which too often read like religious propaganda.
One card begins “For two millennia, men and women of remarkable faith, fortitude and virtue have shared in St. Jerome’s desire for eternal salvation.”
In another card concerning St. Francis, someone for whom I have a great deal of respect, the card reads more like a Sunday school catechism class than something appropriate for a museum. There are far too many “Our fathers” and other such verbiage spread about which creates something deeply troubling and ultimately off-putting.
The thing is it didn’t have to be this way. The works themselves are nicely displayed. As in the rest of the museum, the walls have been painted bright white or covered in white wall covering with a vaguely Italianate background,. and whether it is the reflection of the light against the now bright white walls or whether they have intensified the lighting, the effect is that details are more easily seen. This is a little shocking at first as we have lost the more intimate feeling which was provided by dark crimson walls and subdued lighting from before, but does make the fine detail more available. Reminds me of a certain club in Chicago back in the day which turned on all the lights at 5 in the morning when they wanted everyone to leave. You could see every detail-scary in the club, helpful here.
Even with the works displayed to focus on the religiosity of the work, there could have been a more thorough objective discussion. For example a larger discussion of how the portrayal of the Madonna and Child from a purely otherworldly view to a more human one reflected the profound change in thinking resulting in the Renaissance. This was mentioned on one of the cards, but the theme could have been much better developed, along perhaps with a later discussion of how as money began flowing to individuals rather than only to the church, art changed from glorifying religious figures to glorifying wealthy individuals. This would have provided a better bridge to the later works in the show which seem a bit unconnected. There could have been a discussion of gold leaf or the importance of certain colors, or the inclusion of certain patrons within what were exclusively religious works. These religious works were, of course, originally intended as instruction, but art museums have been correctly and fairly scrupulous in avoiding this aspect. Here it seems to be predominant and this is completely unacceptable.
An art museum is a place for everyone, regardless of personal belief, to feel welcome and a close scrutiny of much of this rehung collection does the opposite. Despite a few interesting bits of historical information such as that on a Jacopo del Casentino altarpiece, the misguided choice to focus on theme has led to a display which is too often off-putting, divisive and deeply troubling.-david sokolec

Transborder Biennial Artists Selected

Congratulations to all of the artists who were selected for this year’s Transborder Biennial. This is the fisth edition of the biennial and I am pleased to see that for this one there was a specific theme given for the exhibition. In this case the theme was the transborder itself in whatever way one wanted to duiscuss it. In years past there has simply been a request for entries with no guidance or suggestions whatsoever as to what qualities or characteristics or ideas the judges might be looking for. In this case, it was at least narrowed down a bit.
The judges for this biennial are Gilbert Vicario,Selig Family Chief Curator of the Phoenix Art Museum and Carlos E Palacios, Curator of the Museo De Arte Carrillo Gil in Mexico City.
The bienial is unique in that the art, which was selected from artists living within 200 miles and on both sides of the US-Mexico border, is simultaneously exhibited in museums on both sides of the border at the Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juarez and the El Paso Museum of Art.
The Transborder Biennial opens on June 1 and runs until September 16.
Here are a list of the artists selected, and again a big congratulations to all of them.-David Sokolec
Animales de Poder (Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua)
Apodaca, Alexia G. (Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua)
Avila, Abraham (Tijuana, Baja California)
Blancas Beltran, Andrea (El Paso, Texas)
Boils Terán, Gabriel (Tijuana, Baja California)
Cabrales, Angel (El Paso, Texas)
De la Rosa-Carrillo, León (Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua)
De los Reyes, Tony (Los Angeles, California)
Elsoldelrac (Tijuana, Baja California)
Esparza, Adrian C. (El Paso, Texas)
Galería Perdida (Rancho Cucamonga, California)
Gere, Rich (Corpus Christi, Texas)
Gutierrez, Guillermo (El Paso, Texas)
Hernández, Ingrid and Pieter Wisse (Tijuana, Baja California)
Hernández, Nayeli (Cd. Juarez, Chihuahua)
José Crespo, María (Tijuana, Baja California)
Kline, Wes and Erika Lynne Hanson (Las Cruces, New Mexico)
Leyva, Ingrid (El Paso, Texas)
Manríquez, Iván (Monterrey, Nuevo León)
Meador, Daryl and Andres Cardena (Brownsville, Texas)
Partegàs, Ester (Marfa, Texas)
Peña, Zeke (El Paso, Texas)
Pimienta, Omar (San Diego, California)
Randall, SV (Las Cruces, New Mexico)
Rocha-Rochelli, Gil (Laredo, Texas)
Sáenz, Mauricio (Matamoros, Tamaulipas)
Turounet, Paul (Cardiff, California)
Unknown Fish (San Diego, California)
Vielma, Carlos (Saltillo, Coahuila)
Villalobos, Jose (San Antonio, Texas)

Aurora Reyes-A Revelation

I’ve been reading a book in which the author points out that while there were hundreds of women artists in Paris before and after WW1, for the most part only the male artists have been remembered.
In Mexico while everyone knows the name of male muralists like Rivera, O’Gorman etc, Aurora Reyes, considered the first female muralist is almost unknown even in her birth State of Chihuahua. The retrospective of her work which opened last Friday night at the Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juarez will hopefully go some way to rectify this situation.
Reyes was not only an artist but a passionate fighter for social justice and for education. She believed murals were not only the best way of spreading her message but also the most Mexican form of art as she saw a link to traditions which predated the Spanish arrival.
Working with rural school teachers perhps her most famous mural Atentado a las Maestras Rurales is from 1936 referencing a bloody confrontation resulting from the Government attempts at education reform in 1934. (Some things never seem to change).
In Mexico City she was artistically and politically active joining the Communist Party and she was friends with many of the better known artists of the period such as Frida Kahlo whose portrait is included in one of the paintings in the show.
The exhibtion shows an artist who is not only politically involved, but also a superb artist. There are oils, prints, drwings and, of course, murals. All of them show a great talent who has unfortunately been for too long not just ignored, but totally forgotten. This should begin a restoration.
The show is on display until May 26.-David Sokolecimg_20180316_195855403141312498.jpgimg_20180316_200443112_burst000_cover_top1434793339.jpgimg_20180316_2002560011254545703.jpgimg_20180317_120539_4411853254565.jpg

Chicano Works on Paper

In addition to the show Ethics, Excess Extinction in the main gallery upstairs at the El Paso Museum of Art, there is a really wonderful show of works on paper from Cheech Marin’s extensive collection of Chicano Art.
Entitled “Papel Chicano Dos” the show brings together a hugely diverse group of artists working with different techniques and exploring a wide range of themes. Many of these works form a series, rather than standing alone.

Vincent Valdez has a boxer series in black and white called “Estaciones” (stations) which consists of twelve different events in the course of a boxer’s death with obvious reference to the Stations of the Cross, while Sonia Romero has a quiet series called “Awakening” consisting of three pieces showing a nude woman emerging from a constraining form like a chrysalis. In this and in a work called inner landscape, she is using the female nude to make a very personal exploration. Sonya Fe has a series retelling the story of La Llorona

There are a number of works by Glugio Gronk Nicandro showing his imaginative and fanciful vision. It’s a wonderful show full of talent and life.
On Saturday March 3 there is going to be a huge celebration at the Museum from 12-4. There will be music, and food trucks and undoubtedly lots of people.
The show itself will be on view until June 17. – David Sokolec

Above Reimagining La Llorona #1-6 Sonya Fe

Estaciones Vincent Valdez

Lifeboat Glugio Gronk Nicandro

Extinction and Excess

In the show Ethics, Excess, Extinction currently on view at the El Paso Museum of Art, the elephant in the room is the elephant in the room, or rather three large white puffy elephants created by Billie Grace Lynn. I don’t know whether the artist considered the idea that the term “white elephant” refers to a usually large, expensive undesirable purchase or if white was simply the color of the material at hand, but in either case they are here to remind us of the danger to the species as well as the danger to many others. One of the really heartbreaking photos in the show is by Nick Brandt, whose black and white photos of park rangers in Africa holding elephnt tusks is a simple but powerful image of the destruction men have wrought on these wonderful animals for the sake of money.
The show consists of a wide variety of approaches to the subject. Karen Knott has a haunting group of photos from her India series which shows an animal ensconced within the walls of a beautiful India interior.
Internationally known artist Kiki Smith contributes a number of huge tapestries portraying various wild animals. There is documentation of performance artists and videos linking people at a flea market with animals foraging.
All of the works in this show remind us in various ways that we are not the only ones on the planet,and that extinction not only means a loss to the animals but a profound loss for the world.
The show is organised by Artworks for Chicago and runs through May 13.-david sokolecIMG_20180221_140256701~2.jpgFotor_151925865347478.jpgIMG_20180221_140740398~2.jpg

Is EPMA ruining the Kress Collection ?

The crown jewel of the El Paso Museum of Art, and, in fact, the basis of the museum’s very existence is the Samuel Kress collection.  This priceless collection of art ranging from the Medieval to the 18th century was gifted to the museum by famed retailer Samuel Kress ages ago and it was on the basis of this gift the museum was built. It is kept in a softly lit room with careful temperature and humidity controls. 

For their current show “The Garden”, the museum has taken one of the medieval altar pieces from its place in the collection and hung it in the bright harsher glare and perhaps less evenly controlled temperature levels of the main gallery. This seems to be taking an unnecessary risk with an irreplaceable work of art.

Perhaps I am overreacting since some of the great museums of the world show their treasures in brighter conditions than that of the Kress collection. Perhaps we have been, in fact, overly protective of the collection all these years. I would point out, however, that in the case of most of the other museums the light is more diffuse and not nearly as harsh as that in the EPMA”s larger gallery. More to the point is that it is the change of venue-the change from the dimmer light, and more carefully watched humidity controls to the sudden glare of the main gallery that seems somewhat problematic. Perhaps nothing at all will occur to damage this work for the relatively short time it is exposed to the much brighter light inj the exhibition, but one has to ask why one wants to take the chance, It is not as if a garden is the subject of the piece. There is simply the hint of a meadow or field in a portion of the background, and one an accompanying note on the wall feels compelled to call attention to as it might otherwise go missed by the casual viewer.
The show, which is composed exclusively of works from its own collection, seems to include any work which even hints at having a flower so perhaps the altar piece seemed fair game.
Again perhaps I am overreacting or being overly protective, but the piece looks thoroughly out of place in the larger show, and the space on the wall of the Kress collection looks simply vandalized.
As long as I am venting about the museum, I couldn’t help noticing that they have painted all of the walls, except for those in the Kress collection, a bright white. This includes the Spanish Colonial works which look as if they are lost in a snowstorm. At a time when people everywhere are talking about getting art out of the “white walls of the museums and galleries” it is remarkable that the EPMA is simply further promoting the stereotype. I also see they have packed one wall in the back from ceiling to floor and from one side to the other with paintings in a manner resembling the 19th century practice and not often seen since.
These latter criticisms are, of course, simply a question of aesthetic taste, but it is one more example of questionable choices. The larger potential problem is the altar piece and one finally has to ask what precisely is going on over there -david sokolec