Installation view of Being Here with You/Estando aquí contigo: 42 Artists from San Diego and Tijuana at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, downtown (photo by Pablo Mason)

SAN DIEGO — Only 15 miles separate San Diego and Tijuana. Together, the border cities comprise the largest binational metropolitan region in the world, cut in half by the world’s most trafficked international border. Each city has approximately 1.3 million residents and yet their urban realities exist in stark contrast: a sprawling wealthy metropolis on one side and dense, informal settlements on the other. Despite the cities’ political and economic differences, a vibrant cultural community has emerged in San Diego and Tijuana that recognizes where the cities diverge but also where they overlap. The diverse group of artists that calls these two cities home is the catalyst for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s (MCASD) current exhibition Being Here With You / Estando aquí contigo: 42 Artists from San Diego and Tijuana.

James Luna, “Jackson Luna” (2016), inkjet print on vinyl, cowhide, paint can, and paintbrushes, approx. 120 x 192 in. (image courtesy Joanna Bigfeather and the estate of James Luna, photo by Nico Ricoy, Pablo Mason)

Co-organized by MCASD Curator Jill Dawsey and Assistant Curator Anthony Graham, the exhibition includes both early career and established artists, some of whom are homegrown talent, while others are recent transplants. James Luna, who had agreed to be in the exhibition before his untimely death earlier this year, is perhaps the most internationally recognized artist. An active community member of La Jolla Indian Reservation in North County, San Diego, Luna’s performance and installation work was centered on Native American cultural identity and the subversion of perceived historical narratives. For the exhibit, the curators chose Luna’s 2016 installation “Jackson Luna,” in which a speckled cowhide is spread across the gallery floor, a paint can and brushes alongside it. A large, black-and-white photograph of Luna mimicking Jackson Pollock painting in his studio is hung overhead. The effect is a poignant critique on the cultural appropriation of Native American culture by artists of European descent — in this case, Pollock’s professed indebtedness to Navajo sand painting.

In her large-scale paintings on salvaged cardboard inspired by 18th-century casta paintings, Tijuana-based artist Alida Cervantes also tackles issues of art historical legacy. Casta paintings were used to define racial classification in colonial Mexico, particularly for mixed-race families. Cervantes subverts the genre, uncannily referencing its baroque aesthetic, while mixing in contemporary influences, such as Mexican folkloric figurines of prostitutes. The results are colorful canvases of grotesque and powerful women that challenge colonial representations of race, class, and gender.

Chantal Peñalosa, “Untitled” (2017), two inkjet prints on photographic paper, 8 ¼ x 19 13/16 in. (image courtesy the artist and Proyectos Monclave)

While several artists in the exhibition take on the historical, the majority are focused on the contemporary. The reality of the US-Mexico border permeates the galleries. In one room, Chantal Peñalosa has created a striking series of works that considers the passage of time and the artist’s meditations on labor. In addition to hundreds of delicate graphite rubbings of pesos and a video of the artist removing stones from beans, Peñalosa has taken alluring photographs of clouds, one set over Tecate, Mexico, and the other just over the border in the United States. The resulting pairings are poetic reminders of the borderless sky, in contrast to the artificial boundaries separating nations below.

Abraham Ávila directly engages the border wall. In his 2017 video “Revealing the Landscape/Descubriendo el paisaje,” the artist is filmed chipping away at the built-up rust on the wall. Shot up-close, the immense care communicated through the laboring hands and rusted material creates a powerful juxtaposition between thoughtful concern and political reality. The video, like Peñalosa’s photographs, reminds viewers that the border is not only artificial, it is part of a specific landscape — one shared between the two nations.

Abraham Ávila, “Writing Fate with Lines” (2017), video and chromogenic print, video: 3:10 min; photo: 22 x 30 in. (image courtesy the artist, photo by Pablo Mason)

The broader topic of landscape is felt throughout the exhibition both in subject matter and in material choices. Across the museum, Monique Van Genderen’s 14-foot painting “Untitled” (2017) feels like linen was dipped into the Earth’s crust, slowly pulled away, and then tagged with aerosol. Alongside the work, Janelle Iglesias’s “Untitled (Stack for San Diego)” (2018) resembles a totem pole of Styrofoam coolers and terracotta pots that playfully reconsiders assemblage in the context of the natural world. The concept of landscape is also felt in Omar Pimienta’s intriguing collection of expired passports that were exchanged for “free citizenship” in the Tijuana neighborhood, Colonia Libertad.

Janelle Iglesias, “Untitled (Stack for San Diego)” (2018), repurposed styrofoam coolers, terracotta pots, palm branches, cast fingers, sunglass lenses, geodes, oyster shells, sea urchin shells, plastic cup, glass bottle, aluminum cans, hand-blown glass, and steel pipe and fittings, 17 x 3 x 4 feet (image courtesy the artist, photo by Pablo Mason)

And while the idea of landscape is threaded throughout the exhibition, what makes Being Here With You / Estando aquí contigo so compelling is that it does not do what group shows of this size so often do — arrange works thematically. Individual galleries are not defined by one overarching theme that seeks to classify artists by subject matter, geography, or medium specificity. Instead, conversations between works happen across the museum, artistic intention and style often miles apart, drawn together by common interests in topics ranging from historical memory and public space, to identity politics and homelessness. Enabling a cross-border dialogue with more than 42 voices, the exhibition successfully addresses critical issues affecting San Diego and Tijuana, while contributing to a broader conversation about what it means to be a binational region in the world today.

Being Here With You / Estando aquí contigo: 42 Artists from San Diego and Tijuana continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (1100 Kettner Blvd, San Diego) through February 3, 2019. The exhibition was curated by Jill Dawsey and Anthony Graham.

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Rachel Heidenry

Rachel Heidenry is an art writer, educator, and curator currently based in Santa Barbara, California. Her research focuses on modern and contemporary art from the United States and Latin America, as well...