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A Billboard Gallery Brings Art to the Masses of Mexico City

Sonora 128, a billboard gallery in Mexico City, showing Antonio Caro's "Achiote" (2016) (all photos by PJ Rountree, courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City, 2016)
Sonora 128, a billboard gallery in Mexico City, showing Antonio Caro’s “Achiote” (2016) (all photos by PJ Rountree, courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City, 2016)

MEXICO CITY — A piece of art that arrives plastered on a billboard might understandably be considered an attempt to strike a blow against the cultural status quo. The format, oversized and egotistical by nature, is a showy delivery system no matter how you look at it, a loud scream set in opposition to a gallery world where everyone converses in careful whispers.

Artists have been employing billboards since the 1960s, with everyone from Joseph Kosuth to Jeff Koons to Félix González-Torres taking advantage of the most public of canvases and, more often than not, using it to indulge in a brash sort of self-loathing, criticizing either billboards or art. Barbara Kruger put hers up to challenge advertising-driven consumerism. The Guerrilla Girls included them in a campaign to expose gender bias in the art world. Billboards can be a way to get work noticed, sidestepping or grabbing the attention of curators and dealers.

Sonora 128, a single-billboard gallery set atop a six-story building in Mexico City’s busy Condesa neighborhood, has its own ulterior motive, though it’s not about getting artists recognized. Both Wolfgang Tillmans, who kicked off the space with an exhibition from March to May, and now Antonio Caro, whose piece “Achiote” runs through August, established their reputations long ago. But the gallery does take direct aim at the exclusiveness of a local art scene that, as curator Bree Zucker puts it, can come off as “invitation only.”

Contemporary art is thriving in Mexico City, creatively and commercially. There are more galleries than ever, and they have an international outlook that sets exhibition standards high. But art can be frustratingly hard to access. Many galleries keep their profiles low and their doors bolted at all times, posting guards at their entrances who give visitors the once over. Even upstart spaces can be hard to penetrate. Gaga Arte Contemporáneo, among the trendiest ones in the city right now, has a business sign smaller than an iPad; it can be a long wait at the locked entrance before anyone acknowledges the place is open. To visit Lulu, which has gotten well-deserved global attention lately, it helps to ask around for founder Chris Sharp’s cell phone number, so he can let you in at a time that falls outside of the gallery’s four official hours each week.

Antonio Caro's "Achiote" (2016) at Sonora 128
Antonio Caro’s “Achiote” (2016) at Sonora 128

It can be intimidating for an insider and impossible for an outsider to make much headway here. And that’s why Sonora 128 is making its point, establishing a permanent base for art, at an exceeding large scale, at the one of the most active intersections in the metropolis. Twenty-three feet high and 42 feet long, Sonora 128 is visible from five converging streets. There are no barriers beyond the need to simply glance above the fray of cars and pedestrians.

“We’re trying to have this really immediate dialogue that is there anytime, 24 hours a day,” said José Kuri, a founder of Kurimanzutto, the blue-chip gallery sponsoring the billboard.

Immediacy, of course, is crucial to billboard art. Viewers don’t stop and stare, they pass by without pausing. Advertisers have used that to their advantage for a century, condensing their messages into short, simple bursts.

Caro’s piece borrows that strategy by appropriating the image of one of Mexico’s most familiar commercial products, the yellow-and-red Chiclets chewing gum box, except the brand name has been subtly altered so that it reads “Cachiote.” In doing so, he marries an iconic Mexican commodity produced by an American-owned conglomerate and achiote, a plant extract that’s been used as both a spice and a dye in Mexico and other points south going back to the Aztecs.

If a curator is trying to present a populist, easy-to-grasp message to a wide range of Mexicans, the questioning of colonialism is an apt, and to many, agreeable topic — one they’re likely to be open to on the fly. Though Zucker is ultimately aiming for more than a quick hit; she hopes viewers will continue to think about what they see after they’ve passed it by.

“Often, after the shock of a quick moment, we can spend months digesting, only understanding the full impact some time later,” she said.

A reflection of Antonio Caro's "Achiote" (2016) at Sonora 128
A reflection of Antonio Caro’s “Achiote” (2016) at Sonora 128

There is some irony in the fact that Sonora 128, which purports to take on the city’s established galleries, is a product of one of the most successful art-dealing operations in Latin America. Kurimanzutto, located about two miles away in the San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood, is a relaxed, airy place, though its programming, often highly conceptual and a bit mysterious, can make it a challenging visit. And, yes, there’s a guy at the front door sizing up guests.

But the billboard space fits comfortably into Kurimanzutto’s long-standing mission. The gallery was founded in 1999 by Kuri,

Mónica Manzutto, and Gabriel Orozco to address what was then a shortage of contemporary exhibition space in Mexico City and to help artists connect their work to more people. Lately, the gallery has continued to push the limits of its own program by showing more art and offering more talks in public spaces outside its walls.

“We wanted to extend the gallery to the streets,” said Kuri. “To have a closer relationship to the city.”

Sonora 128 does bring things closer to the masses. It may not offer the intimate communion with art that a traditional gallery makes so easy, but it connects the things artists want to say to the real world.

Plus, its value is greater than whatever piece is currently on view. By vaulting art into the public consciousness, the space challenges other purveyors of culture to consider how easy, or difficult, they make it for people to see their wares. In Mexico City, that’s a bold and badly needed move.

Sonora 128 is located at Avenida Sonora and Nuevo León (Condesa, Mexico City). Antonio Caro’s work is on view through August 31.

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