A Bug A Cactus and World Domination

Textiles and dyeing techniques seem to have suddenly become the topic du jour for museum shows. About two  weeks  ago, I was reading Rainey Knudson’s excellent review in Glasstire  of the Ikat textile show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; I see there is a show of waxed batik at the Dallas Museum of Art, and just last week I stumbled into the magnificent show “The Red That Colored the World” at the El Paso Museum of Art.
This show comes from the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe and explores the importance of cochineal dye throughout the ages and throughout the world.
The dye comes from the cochineal bug happily feeding on the prickly pear cactus and if you think this is a bit too arcane or tedious you need to think again. This is a remarkably vibrant show.
The discovery of using this bug for a particular shade of red and its variations first occured in both Mexico and Peru centuries ago, but with the conquest of the area by Spain it soon spread throughout the world. We often think about the Spanish conquest in terms of gold or maybe chocolate but this dye became the third most important trading item for them and was used in all kinds of ways.

In addition to telling the history and showing the spread of the dye back to Europe then to Asia and back again to the Americas. It displays all sorts of items on view from bags to ancient huipils centuries  to paintings centuries old to dresses made in 2014. The dye was used for the English “redcoat”uniforms in the Revolutionary War and in items we use today.  It was found in Native American weavings and along the silk road. I mentioned the Ikat exhibit because I believe there is a tie-in. The Ikat weavings were from Bukhara and Bukhara was one of the important stops along the way for the trade of the dye to Asia.
This is a marvellous show and there is even a section where you can try on various red colored pieces of clothing and take photos of yourself. Photography is not allowed in the rest of the show.
It  will be up through August 20 and unlike most of the previous majot shows at the Mueum this is free. -david sokolec


Exceptional African American prints at EPMA

San Antonio art collectors Harmon and Harriet Kelly have put together an extremely impressive collection of African-American art. If they had collected nothing more than the works on view at the El Paso Museum of Art, they would have still made an impressive accomplishment. These works on paper  can be viewed in any number of ways, all of them satisfying.
The exhibit ranges from the late 1800’s to 2002 and does a pretty good job of providing a cross-section of important artists during that time. Most of these artists studied at prestigious art schools in the US and abroad, and many travelled extensively . One question raised by the exhibit is why aren’t these artists better known?
The early works by artists like Grafton Tyler Brown (1841-1918) who spent most of his life in Canada  or Lois Maillou Jones (1905-1998) or Henry Ossawa Tanner(1859-1937) who studied with Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy and then went on to spend most of his life in France generally focus on purely aesthetic concerns whether a shipwreck off the coast of Brittany or a ranch in western Canada. These are   highly skilled and well trained artists.
There is a shift a bit later with the rise of the Harlem Renaissance and with a general trend by many artists to focus on the society and social conditions around them. Although white artists like George Bellows and photographers like Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange have long been much better known, the skill and perception of an artist like Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) known as the Dean of the Harlem Renaissance among others makes us want to see more.
Although Europe was often a favorite place for these artists to live and study, a few also went to Mexico. Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) and Hale Aspacio Woodruff  (1900-1980) were among those who found inspiration in that country. Woodruff in fact  worked with Diego Rivera on murals.
The newer pieces in the show are generally far more overtly political, some using humor others straight-forward.
The Kelleys apparently started collecting this art when they saw a show and were somewhat embarrassed they were not very familiar with many of the artists. Their gain is also our gain in this excellent exhibition which can be seen purely from the point  of view of aesthetics as there are a wide variety of printing techniques employed and a wide variety of artistic skill at play, or  it can be seen as a socially relevant show documenting African -American life and concerns over a century or it can be seen as at long last bringing to view some extremely talented artists who are not nearly as well known as they should be at least to much of the general public. This show helps to rectify that situation.
It is free and on view until April 16.-david sokolec





New Director for El Paso Museum of Art

The El Paso Museum of Art has finally selected a new Director. Hesse McGraw comes from  the San Francisco Institute of Art where he was Vice President for Exhibitions and Public Programs.He was in charge of its Walter and McBean galleries  which focus on contemporary art, public lectures and community involvement. Prior to that he was chief curator at the Bemis arts center in Omaha where he seems to have done some remarkable things in terms of promoting local arts and extremely creative use of non-traditional spaces.

The more I read about him the more excited and interested I am to see what he is going to be able to do here. He seems to be someone passionate about both contemporary art and community outreach, both of which we desperately need here. He seems to want to push boundaries in terms of exhibitions and to interact with the community at large  as well as help promote local art and artists.

It should prove an interesting appointment.  Although the museum does have works by late 20th century artists, unquestionably its most important holdings are the Kress collection, roughly 15th-18th century European works; Spanish Colonial works, and Tom Lea. So there is certainly a need for a closer look at contemporary work. The question is whether there is an appetite among the broader community for it. This is where a strong educational program and active community involvement comes in. This is  a place where some people seem easily offended by such things as a sculpture of melted guns turned into birds and where a work at a past biennial couldn’t be shown because it was considered too graphic, though the piece showed in Juarez with little comment. Some of the exhibitions McGraw staged in his first years at SFAI would probably raise both eyebrows and blood pressure here which is also something we could definitely use.

The El Paso Museum of Art is unusual in that it is partly public owned and partly private so the director needs a deft hand and perhaps special tap shoes to do the multi-stakeholder shuffle. From everything I’ve read McGraw seems like he could make a dynamic contribution and bring some fresh new blood to the Museum. His appointment starts Oct 10, and I, for one, am really very excited to watch the developments.-david sokolec

Celebrating Picasso

From all I´ve read, nobody celebrated Picasso as much as he celebrated himself, but the El Paso Museum of Art has two complementary shows which do their part.
From the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City, Missouri comes a large show of black and white photographs of Picasso at home and in his studio starting in the mid-50’s  by war photographer David Douglas Duncan.
Duncan met Picasso in the mid ’50s, and they immediately hit it off to such an extent that he was invited to Picasso’s summer home in the south of France and allowed to document domestic life there and later in other places. There are photos of Picasso in his bathtub,  photos with Jacqueline Roque, his current wife , and other scenes of Picasso in his studio as well as with notables such as  Jean Cocteau.
These are large well detailed prints, though it should be noted they are ink jet prints rather than  the silver prints which would have been made at the time they were photographed.  These were printed in 2013 and donated to the museum  which has sent them out for everyone’s enjoyment. For those who are interested in this more intimate view of Picasso this is a great show.
Along with these photos, the El Paso museum has put on a display of international publicity posters for Picasso shows over the decades. This has been shown before, but it makes a nice companion piece, and there are some posters I don’t remember having seen such as the poster for an Italian exhibition from the 50’s which uses as an image  ¨Guernica¨ – an amazing choice for a country which just ten years before had been  on the other side. There are posters Picasso made to promote events in the town where he lived as well as posters by galleries which were holding exhibitions of his work.
I should mention that in the exhibit next door in the De Wetter gallery there is a Picasso print (which appears to have been printed backwards.)
Interestingly in the main hall, and seemingly unrelated to the show is a canvas owned by the museum by Francois Gilot, who, one might say, endured Picasso somewhat earlier. I don’t know if this was left up for the show as its been there awhile, but after looking at all the pictures of Picasso and Jacqueline, it’s a little nod to a previous  romance and a somewhat stormier time
-david sokolec

Intimate riches

The El Paso Museum of Art recently hosted an exhibition of 30 large size prints by artists living in the Southwest in most cases near the US Mexican border. Often  bold, brash, and colorful, they varied widely in theme  but  displayed the artistic and thematic concerns of some of the artists living in El Paso, Tucson and Albuquerque.
Currently on display upstairs in the De Wetter gallery is a view of  prints from an earlier time. Spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, they are beautiful examples of work from some extremely well-known European and American artists.
These prints form a small portion of the 175 works of art in various media which were donated to the museum this past January upon the death of noted  civic leader and philanthropist Gertrude Amelia “Sugar” Goodman. . The aptly named show is called Intimate Figures”perhaps both because of the size of the prints as well as the subject matter, which tends to focus on individuals and small intimate scenes. The mostly black and white prints  showcase such luminaries as  Mary Cassatt,  Picasso, ,Malliol, Whistler , and  Chagall among others.
The subjects range from Cassatt’s finely delineated portrait of domestic scenes to Whistler’s  portraits of rag pickers in London. There are self-portraits such as Ivan Albright’s,  who is  as delightfully both repellent and compelling in black and white as he is in color. In short, some remarkable artists doing  wonderfully delicate and finely drawn work in lithography, woodblock, etchings and aquatint, among other techniques.
Although most of the artists are from Europe or the East Coast of the US, The Southwest is also here well  represented by such excellent printmakers as Gene Kloss, Gustave Baumann, also perhaps better known for his paintings ,and Barbara Latham. These artists all worked in Taos and Santa Fe and there are depictions of early days in that other world of Northern New Mexico.
The show which recently opened is up through October 11 and something of a reminder of what a joy art can be.-david sokolec


Border Biennial spans the Rio Grande

There are a lot of ways to set up a biennial or art festival.  You can have a group from the sponsoring body scour the landscape to handpick artists a la Whitney or you can have an individual select a portion of the festival with other galleries or countries sending in their own choices a la Venice. The El Paso Museum of Art seems to have adopted what I’m calling the Emma Lazarus approach. To paraphrase that poet’s words from the Statue of Liberty “Send me your oils, your videos, your installations, yearning to be displayed.” Anyone living within a 400 mile radius of the border can submit work, but there is no criteria given, no theme, simply a request for entries with judges deciding based on their own private criteria. This is perhaps more democratic than some other methods, but I can only imagine it leaves some people scratching their heads. In any case, this year some 285 artists responded, a larger number than previously and of those 44 were selected. They were pretty evenly divided on either side of the border with 21 from Mexico and 23 from the US.
This year’s judges were Santiago Espinosa de los Monteros from Mexico and Eduardo Diaz from the United States, although  a few days before the opening Mr Diaz resigned in protest over the exclusion of a local artist who he had selected to be included. (I have been told there are lawyers involved at least on one side so I want to leave the matter alone except to say that the grounds for exclusion apparently involved a perceived violation of one of the few requirements for entry.)

Santiago has a long and distinguished career as an art critic and curator in several Latin American countries writing for  Art Nexus among other publications;He also worked in the cultural section of the Mexican embassy in Venezuela and later Canada.  and in 2008 was named National Coordinator for Plastic Arts at  the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura(INBAL). In short he seems to have spent his life dealing specifically with contemporary art as both critic and administrator.

Eduardo Diaz is currently the Director of the Smithsonian Latino  Center, though El Pasoans might remember him from when he was a consultant  in San Antonio and was paid a great deal of money by the El Paso City government to form a master plan for the city arts department which included, among other things,  putting all of the major cultural institutions under one umbrella organization rather than having them continue to run as separate fiefdoms.
From this MCAD came into being. He also had a meeting with artists where he spent a fair amount of time explaining his plan and they spent a fair amount of time yelling at him; I forget why. Prior to being named to the Smithsonian post, he was the  Executive Director of the National  Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, the largest such  center in the country.

A major interest of Mr. Espinoza was to select art which “had something to say”. This is not only a view currently in vogue-many festivals and biennials all over the world have suddenly discovered they need to take a look at the world around them, but I have long believed that a great majority of Latin America art has long concerned itself with societal issues, sometimes overtly and others obliquely, but always taking society or local history into account. This in contrast with northern attitudes which too often seem to be about me and what I found in the trash or my bed.
There is of course an alternative view which  is perhaps more interested in purely aesthetic matters or other ideas. This tension might have played a part in deliberations for this biennial, but I would say the bulk of the show reflected, in a variety of media, societal concerns such as immigration and violence, life on the border, and the use of reworked  historical iconography to express present day concerns.  The works were mainly two dimensional but using widely varied techniques and media.There were also videos, sculptures and in one case, yes, found objects
I want to mention  a series of small elegant pencil drawings by Ana del Aguila Malvaez illustrating health pointing out health hazards in maquilas, and large oils by Rigoberto Gonzalez imitating Caravaggio to show powerful but horrifying scenes of modern cartel violence  in “Medusa” and “Perseus with the head of Medus”. There were photographs of daily life on the border and a series of small cards remembering the 43 disappeared students at Ayotzinapa.

Not all was specifically border related. Quing Liu’s Tea Dream series showed beautiful  delicate brush and ink work on tea bags, and others were concerned with color and composition and I very much liked Rebeca Mendez’s two deceptively simple videos El Norte and Circumpolar.
Artists had to submit two works because the show opened simultaneously in El Paso and Juarez, and it is really worthwhile to see the show in both museums. not least because the difference in spaces also makes a difference in the show. The larger El Paso Museum of Art was originally a bus station while the smaller circular Museo de Arte was built specifically to show art. What this means in practice is that in Juarez the smaller space makes the show seem more intimate while in El Paso the works seem more separate. Something the El Paso museum does is to provide text taken from the catalogue in which the artist  talks about the specific pieceon view. I know there are differing opinions about text on gallery walls, and some artist statements can be problematic, but here it often does much to enhance the work.
Without the text, we might not really know what Rebeca Mendez was doing trudging back and forth in the snow with a Mexican flag (she was trying to symbolically claim a part of the Arctic for Mexico) nor would we understand that Andres Troncoso’s overweight virgins came about because he was troubled as a child in church from  the discrepancy between the images of the flawlessly beautiful Virgin he saw in paintings and the women he saw around him in church, wondering why the Virgin didn’t look like them. Many reading fashion mags are asking the same thing, so I’m wondering if these early religious images were the Vogue or Elle for the faithful, but I digress.

There is much to like in this show, though I have to say much of it seemed famiiar. Perhaps this simply reveals a unity to be found here-the distinctive voice which emerges from this very distinctive culture, but of course, there are thousands of artists living on the border and many of them are working in an entirely different vein or with different concerns. Regardless the show which will be up through early February is definitely worth an exploration.

The bilingual catalogue is for sale in El Paso, though not at the Museum in Juarez. -david sokolec

Photos and murals

There are a couple of openings this week as well as a series of continuing shows.

Wednesday night there is the opening of photographer Mariano Aparicio’s work ENTREACTOS at the Rectory at UACJ. (Hermanos Escobar and Plutarco Ellias). This to open at 6.

There is also the last of this  month’s photography talks at House of Pug (3701 Vicente Guerrero). This time with Emma Lau who will discuss Surrealist conceptual photography. Starts at 7 and there is a 20 peso admission fee.

Thursday night is the opening of Makeshift at Juarez contemporary. This installation by Los Dos collective details the murals of various personalities done in a style inspired by “Graphica Popular” they placed on walls throughout  El Paso in a move designed to open up spaces for creative exposition. The opening is at 6.

I also want to mention the shows continuing at the Rubin Center through Oct 24. Victoria Sambunaris used a large format  (5 x7) camera to photograph throughout the United States (very William Henry Jackson) and in particular along the Us Mexico border. Her show Taxonomy of a Landscape shows large beautiful detailed photographs. I missed her talk so didn’t hear how she printed these pieces, but in an age of photoshop and digital revisions these are quite a nice antidote. There is also a show of memory and in one case, proof you don’t need archival paper to make art when there are post-it notes and scotch tape around to make wonderful little miniatures. This is apart of a show called Tell Me Something and Take it Back featuring international artists Claire Harvey, Sophie Jodoin and Gael Stack. They have each created works which often hint at the subject, which insinuate and in the case of Jodoin which ultimately haunt and reverberate.-david sokolec