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MEXICO CITY — Art school may be the closest thing to Hogwarts on this planet, where undergrads are desensitized to full-frontal nudity and cry in front of their classmates. Mexico City’s SOMA, an unaccredited nonprofit program, offers an alternative to the traditional MFA and, unlike Hogwarts, promises no magic for dispatching life’s obstacles. In a show now on view at Casa Maauad, some of SOMA’s most recent graduates demonstrate formal sophistication and a multiplicity of interests, while still remaining cohesive as a group.
I’m often surprised by masters students from prestigious schools, who feel torn down by the institution and unsure of their creative choices. Academia, a necessarily and rigidly defined system, can be at odds with the nature of art, which necessarily denies definition. Unfortunately, our economic and cultural reality means many talented artists earn MFAs only to become bartenders or servers toling under a mountain of debt. El Aire Entre las Cosas (or “The Air in Between”) makes a strong case for SOMA and other alternative programs’ relevance.
The history of Casa Maauad, a nonprofit artistic and curatorial residency program, plays an important role in the show. Legend has it that the 100-year-old colonial-style mansion was originally designed as a brothel, with a central room branching off into hidden corridors. The house is located in Mexico City’s San Rafeal neighborhood, an up-and-coming district of new galleries and studios.
Drama and theater play a central role in the exhibition, which reveals itself across many rooms and concealed spaces. The show at times feels like an obstacle course and a soundstage for a telenovela. The participating artists created work that sets the stage for introspection, intervention, and participation by the audience. From archeology to anthropology, each artist was very specific in his or her ideas and execution. As the title of the show suggests, the work focuses on negative spaces or things that are missing.
The show begins with “The mystery explained” (2015), a video work by Marcela Rico. An empty stage in an empty auditorium is lit with lights that sweep around in a ballet of stage production and lighting cues. Special effects and backstage happenings become the show. A seemingly infinite combination of lights, screens, and other effects bring the empty auditorium to life. The video, which lasts about 10 minutes, is intimate, beautiful, and maintains the quality of a composition script or score even with the layers of spectacle and audience stripped away. Rico’s editing and videography make the stage itself a character in the drama for which it typically serves as a mere support.
Beyond Rico’s video, a hidden entrance leads viewers into an installation by Kristin Reger, which they enter by way of an elevated catwalk. Evocative of Casa Mauaad’s illicit past, the space is lit in red and its hidden entryway recalls a time of speakeasies and burlesque. Glitter, gold drapery, tequila, and mirrors dominate the installation. A luscious backdrop or set for an act that never took the stage echoes Rico’s video and creates open space for the audience to enter.
The exhibition’s central space features a community-sourced installation by Fernanda Barreto. “Neighborhood meeting” was created using materials brought in from the surrounding area. The work asks what the word “neighbor” means and at the same time alludes to issues of gentrification relevant to the area. Not long ago, San Rafael was primarily inhabited by working class families, a community that some feel is threatened by the impending redevelopment of the neighborhood, along with the influx of bars, stores, and restaurants. In this way, the work is self-critical and asks what artists’ roles are in the process of gentrification and development.
Ricardo Cárdenas and Jael Orea both present projects that take a longer view of change and border on archeology. Cárdenas’ installation, like so many other works in El Aire Entre las Cosas, recalls a stage set, but also looks like a dig site where viewers are invited to sift through artifacts in the form of documents. Visitors are free to sift through piles of paper, which began as perfect stacks, but now fill the floor. “Roots or Rhizomes,” reads one document. Another asks, “Is the truth historical?” Orea’s work involves black market antiquities that the artist purchased — mostly small fragments of pre-Hispanic figures, including a clay arm and head, shown in the exhibition in the form of photographs. The work raises questions about authenticity, cultural appropriation, and ownership. Around the corner, Pedro Hernández installed a real-time projection of the Popocatepetl volcano spewing smoke and gas. The projection screen is stretched across a doorway, creating a faux portal to the outside world. Popo, as locals call it, looms perilously over Mexico City, obscured by the hazy skyline. The installation brings the outside into the gallery, creating a cold digital version of engaging with nature.
Finally, Laura Meza-Orozco and Isauro Huizar’s contributions stand apart for their formal minimalism. Meza-Orozco created a series of monochromatic paintings that portray the evolution of skin color in Mexico between 1827 and 2010, offering a sort of sweeping portrait of an ever more mulatto society. Huizar closes out the show by bringing viewers’ attention back to the space, stripping away layers of paint and gesso on an entire wall to excavate 100-year-old textures, revealing the topography of Casa Mauaad’s history. The building is personified in an accompanying text written by the artist, which tells the wall’s firsthand account of being revealed.
In El Aire Entre las Cosas, the SOMA grads allude to negative space as full of potential, rather than empty. The work focuses on foundations and contexts, without explicit and easily discovered objects or actors. The processes of taking away layers of concealment and revealing hidden subjects and images reference Casa Mauaad’s past. The exhibition parallel’s the program’s ambitions, as SOMA seeks to strip away layers of academia and institutionalization to foster a space for openness and education.