MEXICO CITY — Although Ana Pellicer is a well-known artist in Mexico, internationally she has been overshadowed by her late husband, James Metcalf, and her opus is relatively small. Still, the work in her solo show at House of Gaga manages to sustain relevance and tilt toward the futuristic, even though it was all made in the 1980s and ’90s.
In her practice, Pellicer used traditional copper jewelry techniques from Santa Clara del Cobre in the Mexican state of Michoacan. She makes them contemporary by playing with scale and utilitarianism. Artists who are so identified with a regional style often have trouble breaking free from city and state borders; still, there’s an idealism in Pellicer’s work that ties her to the sociopolitical situation in Mexico and tethers her to tradition, for better or worse.
This show features two projects: a series of gigantic pieces of jewelry made for the Statue of Liberty in New York to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of France’s gift to the United States, and a series of posthumous costumes for Nahuí Ollin, an actress from Mexico’s golden era of cinema, which were used in the 1999 play Nahuí Ollin Mujer de Luz. The show also includes one work by Metcalf, “Ofelia” (1960), which demonstrates the two artists’ decades-long collaboration.
For Pellicer, the line between life and art is thin. In 1976, she and her husband founded the Centro de Acción Educativa, a school dedicated to rescuing and promoting traditional copper and craft techniques from Santa Clara del Cobre. Through the school, Pellicer worked to empower women in the community and engage them in the production of artworks to challenge traditional gender roles beyond the domestic. The monolithic “Collar de Tejos de Santa Clara, Anillo Liliputense Producto de Exportación, Arracada Plana de Huetamo, La Cadena de Oaxaca” and “Prendedor Etrusco Cuanajense” (1978–86), the amulets for the Statue of Liberty, were built in collaboration with the women at the school. At House of Gaga, three of the five original jewelry pieces — the necklace, earring, and ring — are on view.
The pieces are fantastic, but, at the risk of appearing socially conservative, I wish that they could be divorced from the social work of the school. It’s inevitably problematic to follow the narrative of a privileged artist from Mexico City going to a small town to “save” the locals. Mexico City might as well be an entirely different country by contrast with the underdeveloped provincial towns peppering the region. Fighting for women’s rights and the preservation of tradition is, of course, admirable. But the work isn’t made better or more meaningful because of the artist’s participation in an idealist, constructivist project in the small town of Michoacan.
Pellicer, like many other artists, uses a social project to sell her work and to promote herself, which isn’t necessary, especially not when the work is strong and stands on its own. Mexican multimedia artist Francisco Toledo, who is around the same age as Pellicer, offers another poignant example of this same veiled idealism. He is another regional favorite in Mexico, who has enjoyed extensive international success and riches from his career as a poster boy for contemporary Mexican art. He also built an art center and school in his home state of Oaxaca, the Centro de las Artes de San Agustín (CaSa), and he produces his work within the massive compound through the hands of local laborers. When these projects are used to sell art on an international market, they feel uncomfortably exploitative, even though they purport to be philanthropic.
Pellicer’s costumes for the imaginary cinema, made using traditional metalworking techniques, could pass for futuristic war fatigues for Xena the Warrior Princess, in a world in which explosive ordinance warfare has been eradicated and all battle takes place between telepathic superhumans. Maybe in a world in which the stupid greediness of men has been eradicated too. The pieces are utopian and resonant. And it’s apparent that, for the construction of these immaculate forms, the artist benefited greatly from the gifts of Mexican artisans and their generations of knowledge.
Ana Pellicer continues at House of Gaga (Calle Amsterdam 123, Hipódromo, 06100 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico) throught September 9.