Shattered Glass: Rethinking the Collection of the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil

Anya Pantuyeva

In the second week of November, the exhibition Shattered Glass: Rethinking the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil Collection opened at the Americas Society in New York. The Museum of Dr. Alvar and Carmen de Carrillo Gil is located in Mexico City and houses an eponymous private collection donated to the state in 1974. At its core are studio works by muralists José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera, as well as examples of European modernism. The show presented a new look at the Mexican and Latin American portion of the collection: it featured modernist works of Orozco and Siqueiros (Rivera’s were not included) in light of later contemporary acquisitions. These selections were complimented by several works on loan related to the theme of the show. As the title, Shattered Glass, suggests, the thirty nine works on view explore the theme of violence. These works included painting, graphics, collage, photography, and video.

The exhibition was a collaborative project between the museum and the UNAM University in Mexico City. In this way the museum, currently headed by Itala Schmelz, tried to merge its contemporary-art curatorial projects with the earlier modernist painting long colonized by the state’s nationalist rhetoric and Partido Revolucionario Institucional (the party that ruled Mexico until 2000), and rejected by younger generations of artists. The museum invited three guest curators from UNAM’s postgraduate program – Alejandra Olvera, Sandra Zetina, and Bertha Aguilar – who collaborated with UNAM’s senior scholars (Deborah Dorotinsky and Renato Gonzáles Mello among them) in a series of seminar meetings.

The curators organized the show along three sections titled Dystopias: World Destruction; A gun to the Head, a People in Flames: Images of Political Violence; and Physis Rupta: Fragments of the Body and the Psyche. Such a structure not only proposed a fresh approach to works that had come to be seen as didactic, but also took into account the history of exhibitions of art from Mexico held in the US and Europe.

This history has gone hand in hand with the theme of violence, which resulted in numerous stereotypes and exclusions. In the late 1920s through the 1930s, Orozco had to soften his brutal images of the Mexican Revolution in order to enter the US art market. For Alfred H. Barr’s refined taste, Orozco’s and Siqueiros’ works were too violent or too political, and thus ended up underrepresented in MoMA’s shows in the 1940s. It was only Rivera who was honored with a personal show in the museum, but Orozco and Siqueiros condemned his art as touristy kitsch. When in the late 1940s the US and the Rockefeller family, MoMA’s donors, lost political interest in Mexico, the muralists’ works were purged from both the museum’s galleries and from the canon of high modernism, and placed in storage,.

If in the early to mid-1900s there was “too much violence” in art from Mexico, at the end of the century it turned out there was “not enough.” The group shows that surfaced in the 1990s often featured art from Mexico as dispatches from “conflict zones,” like Mexico City or Tijuana. Such was, for example, Mexico City: An Exhibition about Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values in 2002 at P.S.1. Among the variety of art in Mexico, the curators selected the works depicting gun robberies, manhunts, police, poverty, and signs of corrupted wealth, and presented them as the “true facts.” Less graphic works were given a “violent” interpretation: Pedro Reyes’ hanging plastic capsules were called “refuge from earthquake,” and the lost pets in Jonathan Hernández’s posters were described as the victims of kidnappings. “Mexico City is a dangerous place; death and crime rule its streets,” was the leitmotif of the curatorial statement in the catalogue. Thus, very often the formal investigations, universal themes, and poetic content of art from Mexico were neglected, while the presence of bombastic images of violence, poverty, and corruption of the post-NAFTA country became the sole criterion for success.

Given such a history, the curators of Shattered Glass at the Americas Society were stepping on a slippery path. They decided, however, to face the issue upfront. The show admitted the role of violence in Mexico’s history, as if to suggest that both MoMA and P.S.1 curators were right. But Shattered Glass, unlike the exhibitions at MoMA and P.S.1, presented violence as a universal phenomenon and part of common human history, while also nodding toward Mexico’s northern neighbor. The curators placed Siqueiros’ Mutilated House from 1947 – 50 in proximity to Leon Ferrari’s Apocalyptic Angel (1988), the artist’s version of the Seven Seals of Apocalypse presented through photographs of nuclear tests. Siqeuros’ scene in relation appeared to be a post-Hiroshima dystopia, rather than merely the Mexican landscape. The curators reminded the viewers that while in the 1920s the US public was turning away from the images of a “savage” Mexico, Orozco and Siqueiros saw the brutality and horrors of modernity dwelling north of the border. The curators included Orozco’s visions of New York in The Dead (1931), as well as his and Siqueiros’ nearly-surrealist images of lynching. The show juxtaposed past scenes with contemporary manifestations: a portrait of Daniel Joseph Martinez getting his brain blasted out (Self Portrait #7 Gorge and Daniel), photographs of anonymous urban sites by Cannon Bernáldez from her series When the Devil Runs Free (2006–07), and Pablo Vargas Lugo’s cartoon drawing of plane crashes from 1998.

Of course, the curators did not forgo images of the Mexican Revolution: guns, peasants, and equestrian scenes. Orozco’s series Zapatistas Parade from 1931, his famous drawings of the horrors of the revolution from 1926–28 (before he softened his imagery in lithographs for the US market), and Siqueiros’ Zapata from 1966 were all part of the show. The curators tried to highlight these works’ modernist form (after all, Jackson Pollock attended Siqueiros’ workshop in New York) and existentialist meaning by placing them along side political and conceptual contemporary art, such as text collages by Leon Ferrari, Carlos Aguirre, and Helen Escobedo. Such an alignment of the early avant-garde with conceptualism is not a frequent curatorial trope, especially when it comes to the Mexican muralists’ works. But it appears convincing, nevertheless, and shows that any true violence is actual and contemporary, while the muralists’ painting is, first and foremost, a work of art, not a propaganda pamphlet.

The last, and perhaps most interesting, section in the show comprised the older works in view of feminist and queer theory and activism. It highlighted psychological, bodily, and uncanny dimensions of violence, which, like contemporary conceptualism, is rarely thought of in relation to Mexican modernism. According to Deborah Dorotinsky, the curators grappled with the question of how to approach violence without reducing it to gory imagery, which might contribute its objectification and consumption. Thus one would find Alejandro Montoya’s abstract and terrifying diptych Mutilation (1989) displayed with Orozco’s painting Driftwood (1925 – 28), of human bodies as the driftwood of history, and Gunther Gerzso’s sensual but disembodied Nude (1959). Placing Orozco’s monumental painting from the Los Teules series (1947) alongside Ambra Polidori’s Fragmentation (1993), photographs of classical sculptures, manually changed to show various stages of their faces’ decomposition, shows both are looking into the face of destruction wrought by the passage of time. An unexpected but insightful addition to this section was a projection of Mireia Sallarès’ documentary Las Muertas Chiquitas (2009), Mexican women speaking of rape, domestic violence, sex, politics, death, music, and hope.

While the relatively small scale of the show made some works even more precious, the tight exhibition space downplayed the qualities of others. It is difficult to appreciate the grand narrative in Orozco’s work when The Dead is, literally, hung by the door and his drawings of the horrors of the revolution are cluttered in the corner. One may also ask why curators chose these specific contemporary works and not others–after all, there is no lack of Latin American and Latino art dealing with violence. Specific political events were not part of the curatorial perspective: the fact of the recent explosion of violent crime in the Americas caused by the current “war on drugs” felt like an elephant in the dark gallery room. Thus, the curatorial selection appeared to be somewhat idiosyncratic, rather than comprehensive, but the three (female) curators did not try, it seems, to deny these idiosyncracies. The primary strength of the show is that it managed to continue conversation about the notorious theme of violence in art from Mexico and Latin America without relying on visual fetishism and ethno-national stereotypes. Furthermore, the canonical works of the muralists that had been drained of their actual artistic meaning throughout the years of ideological uses and abuses received a new opportunity to speak their word in our strange political times.

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