GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Sin rodeos traces Betsabeé Romero’s practice and includes new works that reflect upon several artists from the state of Jalisco, Mexico. The works featured are prints, paintings and drawings on trunk lids, tires, mirrors and cut paper. Also included are several anonymous paintings from the eighteenth century and ex-votos by the painter Jerónimo de León, who was active during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Despite the fact that the Hospicio Cabañas, a former orphanage built during the early 1800s, is one of Jalisco’s most important cultural institutions, it sometimes houses disappointing exhibitions such as this. Moreover, several of Romero’s works seemed unfinished and badly executed.
Romero has combined two strains of Mexican contemporary art dating to the 1980s and 90s, respectively: neomexican influences and conceptual art. Though several media are used, she is mostly known for her deployment of cars and tires as materials and inspiration for her works, which have dealt with themes such as immigration, speed, accidents and miracles. Though her practice claims to reinterpret symbols and rituals related to global capitalism, it seldom addresses these themes in a truly novel manner.
Unfortunately, and this is seems to be how the Cabañas currently operates, local museums often choose to exhibit artists who seem palatable, easy to digest. Romero’s appropriation of works by other artists and her incessant use of folkloric references do not engage with any sort of critical exploration, but rather, recast Mexican visual culture in novel, yet obvious ways. Her sombreros, nuns, tires, ceramics, historical references and bright colors are reminiscent of the crafts one can buy at the central market in Guadalajara, for example. One can interpret her practice as a juste milieu, that sweet spot in between innovation and the academy. This would be a generous interpretation.
Romero’s homage to artists from Jalisco who have influenced her led to the creation of pieces dealing with nuns’ seclusion in colonial Mexico, modernist architecture, and the tradition of ex-votos. This dialogue with this state’s rich cultural heritage is a superficial revision of the works of the anonymous painter of nuns, Jerónimo de León, Luis Barragán (who won the second Pritzker prize in 1980), Chucho Reyes and Martín Ramírez. This reevaluation is patronizing, as if Jalisco’s artists needed this attention in order to retain their relevance.
Sin rodeos is not the first time such a thing occurs. When the Jumex Collection, Latin America’s largest collection contemporary art, sent works to the Cabañas in 2011, it likewise sought to speak to our state’s heritage. Though the pieces by leading contemporary and Mexican artists were well chosen, especially since most of them were shown for the first time in this city, the curator sought to relate them to the muralist José Clemente Orozco’s frescos and to the building’s former function as an orphanage. Perhaps it was a way to appeal to local audiences, but did not succeed in generating new ways of thinking about Orozco, the building, or the pieces on view. In Sin rodeos, the attempt to employ local art as a starting point backfired, since the older works outshone Romero’s pieces. This is not to say that a productive dialogue cannot occur, but that placing mediocre neoconceptual art alonside ex-votos might not the best way to achieve this.
Coincidentally, Gabriel Orozco’s latest solo exhibit at Faurschou Foundation Beijing features tires. This time, the artist has gathered the remains of exploded tires, arranging them with usual care, as if they were artifacts from an archaeological dig. While Orozco’s late works are nowhere near as interesting as what he produced during the 90s, he manages to make Romero’s works seem even less relevant. Regardless, both artists exemplify two of the most visible strands of the national art scene.
On the one hand, a very serious sort of art one can refer to as ‘high conceptual,’ which is essentially, a recapitulation of what Orozco himself accomplished during the nineties. Parallel to this, we have a ‘national,’ middlebrow adaptation of this aesthetic, which consists in the addition of folkloric elements. In both cases, however, neither artist’s work is convincing. While Orozco retreats into some sort of everyday, cerebral conceptualism (with a dash of the archival impulse), Romero aims for legibility, and ends up with works of art that seem more like the kind of pieces one finds in satires about the art world. One of them is retracing his steps over and over again, this time for Chinese audiences, while the other achieves, unbeknownst to her, a strange form of conceptual kitsch.
Betsabeé Romero: Sin rodeos is at PLACE (Cabañas 8, Las Fresas, Guadalajara) through October 27.
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