MEXICO CITY — Between 1987 and 1992, a group of young art students in Mexico City formed a weekly flux group of creative exchange and critique as an alternative to the overly traditional fine art education available to them. The group includes some of Mexico’s most famous contemporary artists: Abraham Cruzvillegas, Damián Ortega, Dr. Lakra, Gabriel Kuri, and Gabriel Orozco. Recent work from the Taller de los Viernes (Friday Workshop) is now on view at Kurimanzutto gallery, marking the first time the artists have shown together in over 20 years and encompassing a diversity of practices with a line of discussion common across complimentary careers.
The show is titled XYLAÑYNU after a poker-style game invented by the artists in their student days and played in the gallery space. The game is about the act of attempting to illustrate or speak truthfully, alluding to a tired narrative about the inevitable multiplicity of perspectives, images, and truths. Under the direction of curator Guillermo Santamarina, the artworks play with double entendre and ambiguity to recreate an adolescent moment full of contradiction. Although the show includes some excellent pieces, as a whole it’s loosely thrown together with hair-thin curatorial ties connecting disparate ideas.
Many of the works in the show include empty space or nothingness — frames rather than paintings. This creates an interactive element to the work, which allows viewers to create combinations and compositions by moving through the space and looking at multiple works at once, especially with Orozco’s “Blind Signs” (2013), which acts like a maze. The glass sculptures adorned with typical Orozco shapes create layered graphics that project themselves onto the rest of the space as the viewer looks outward from within the labyrinth. Cruzvillegas created a psychedelic frame around the whole exhibition with five peyote cacti positioned to indicate the cardinal directions and the center point. The dirt holding each peyote plant, housed in worn out clay pots, is skewered with a simple paper sign reading, “no soy cenicero” (“I’m not an ashtray”). The statement is a play on the Sioux legend of personified peyote, which birthed a plethora of misinformed hippie legends that peyote speaks to those under its influence or that it finds you in the desert. The pseudo-mystical work also imbues the cactus with the voice of Mother Nature, giving an environmentalist tone to Cruzvillegas’s work.
In his meandering and provocative curatorial text, Santamarina invokes the Greek idea of parrhesia, or free speech, and cites Michel Foucault’s Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia. Both Santamarina and Foucault speak of parrhesia as a genuine expression of ideas demonstrating the necessity of critique, rather than categorical truthfulness. The juxtaposition of practices in the exhibition exemplifies the multiplicity of contexts, viewpoints, and perspectives that make up reality, as echoed by Ortega’s piece, “Modos de Ver” (“Ways of Seeing,” 2016), a reference to John Berger’s art school classic. Ortega and the rest of the group create a variety of lenses through which to see the gallery and the world as a whole. Ortega and Orozco’s formalism is juxtaposed with Cruzvillegas and Dr. Lakra’s psychedelic readymade crudeness, creating a spectrum of collective, multidimensional ways of seeing, but offering no alternative to the status quo. The exhibition’s connection to or illustration of parrhesia isn’t clear. Foucault points out that parrhesia is having the courage to express truth to others or reveal a truth about oneself, even under duress or in the face of danger. XYLAÑYNU seems to suggest the possibility of multiple truths, but doesn’t take on the burden of any high-stakes or critical point of view.
On the flip side, one piece by Kuri, “Maqueta Para Desfile” (“Mockup for a Parade,” 2010), seems to allude to a closed way of seeing. A conveyor belt rolls endlessly, spinning an empty energy drink can, suggesting spent energy or a lack of willpower. Kuri’s work often incorporates industrial materials and includes found elements, but maintains a sterile coolness. The work is suggestive of our habitual production and consumption as we struggle to keep up with the treadmill of capitalism, which encourages primitive perspectives and preconceived notions about reality. Kuri’s closed loop breaks the open-ended narrative in the exhibition at Kurimanzutto, creating curatorial inconsistency. His works are interesting individually, but within the exhibition they seem out of context.
Yes, it’s titillating to see the Friday Workshop group together again, years after they’ve gone on to lauded individual careers, and the show offers insights into the early development of the artists. However, the cumulative effect feels blasé. Some of the works interact, while others exist in their own bubbles. The composition of the space feels poorly considered. The gallery isn’t full, yet too much work is crammed together. In addition to highlighting shared ideas, XYLAÑYNU creates dissonance or dead space between works that were clearly made for different contexts. Finally, it has to be pointed out: this group of artists represents the boys’ club of Mexican contemporary art, making the exhibition irritatingly self-congratulatory and even hypocritical. The work makes the case for new ways of seeing, but the show sticks to the traditional dynamic of exclusivity.