MEXICO CITY — In places like Mexico City, where conceptual art with an overt sociopolitical agenda currently dominates, media such as sculpture, drawing, and painting go completely unnoticed, seen as vain expressions belonging to an expired avant-garde. Painting’s continued institutional sublimation begs questions about the role of the painter and the place of materiality and craft in contemporary art. Namely, where is contemporary painting situated in the Mexican art scene?
Brazilian artist Lucas Arruda’s show Deserto – Modelo is a direct confrontation with the question of painting’s place today. Three small seascape compositions — all of them from 2015 and titled “Untitled (Deserto – Modelo)” — hang at Lulu, a tiny white cube sunk in a timeless, middle-class Mexico City neighborhood. They suggest a subtle yet drastic concern for painting at its most elemental. Arruda’s obsessive battle with perceptual elements such as light and space entails an enigmatic exploration of time — namely, time as a hidden value discernible in the final appearance of each piece. For instance, the smallest painting in the exhibition was made using a technique in which paint is shoved and collected at the canvas’s edges, framing the image with the residue of discarded oil paint. The seascape composition coexists with the most basic expression of painting: paint.
Through almost ritualistic, repetitive actions, Arruda investigates the interdependence of imaginative and tangible spaces. Artists like him remind us that painting is surely not dead. Ironic as it may sound, what may be radical today in contemporary art is the regression to fundamental questions about beauty, dissonance, harmony, and the sublime. Arruda’s technique is intended to provoke an ethereal moment of both recognition and forgetfulness. Light emanates from the center; a subtle horizon is visible, yet lost in a sense of defined blurriness or mild abstraction. Mostly known for his intricate landscape paintings, he portrays metaphorical content that illustrates a sensitive, precise idiosyncrasy, a trait he shares with Lulu’s curatorial program.
Artist Martin Soto Climent and independent curator Chris Sharp founded Lulu three years ago. It is one of the few places in Mexico City willing to show novel, unpretentious work, one that is autonomous from a herd tendency in the Mexican art scene. Lulu engages with a very local, specific community while at the same time resonating with an eclectic international scene. The gallery works with Mexican and foreign artists who have had little or no exposure in Mexico City, but who bring a palpable tension to the local scene, among them Michael E. Smith, Nina Canell, Ian Kiaer, Melanie Smith, and Kate Newby. In a way, Lulu fills a gap by showing artists who simultaneously belong to the scene and keep to its periphery.
Lulu’s aim is to show work that doesn’t separate content and form. The gallery is also interested in a very specific artistic production, in which “craft, the actual making of art plays a very important role,” Sharp told Hyperallergic. “Lulu was born in part from these perceived lacunae. When I first arrived in DF, I kept ending up at all these non-curated, pop-up group shows all over the city, which lasted only one night. They seemed more like excuses to drink mezcal than real shows.”
The art scene in Mexico City is generally entangled in a monocultural trendiness that is evident in the lack of critique and the uniformity of artistic production. But in recent years there has been a more heterogeneous dialogue with new artist-run spaces going against the dominant tendencies. Lulu’s curatorial approach has nurtured a more complex dialogue in the city’s tiny contemporary art scene with new ideas regarding not only craft and materiality, but also the politics of the gallery system. This catalytic gesture will, hopefully, enable fresh approaches to the aesthetic problems preoccupying local artists and give way to a more varied, kaleidoscopic range of artistic production that still resists complete elucidation.