DALLAS — “I personally believe that materials have a soul of their own,” the Mexico-born, Texas-based artist Octavio Medellín wrote in 1978. “My mission,” he continued, “was to search in them their behavior so that I [could] communicate with them.” Whether he was using wood, stone, metal, or clay, materials mattered to Medellín. The artist saw these as entities that he would, in his words, “become part of” and transform into something universal. Throughout his long career, Medellín combined his materials’ essence with his own creative vision.
Octavio Medellín: Spirit and Form at the Dallas Museum of Art is the artist’s first museum retrospective. Curated by Mark Castro, the exhibition features roughly 80 works, including sculptures, drawings, prints, and photographs from Medellín’s initial experiments in the 1920s to pieces completed just before his death in 1999. As a prolific artist and beloved teacher, Medellín helped define the Texas art scene for six decades. His work lives on in his many public commissions at institutional and religious spaces across Texas, and in the Creative Arts Center, which he founded in Dallas in 1966. Castro’s exhibition is a thoughtful tribute to Medellín’s lifelong pursuit of craft and his sincere search for connection.
Born in 1907 in Matehuala, Mexico to a large family of Otomí ancestry, Medellín’s early years were marked by the unrest of the Mexican Revolution. To escape the conflict, his family immigrated to San Antonio, Texas, where Medellín took on odd jobs to help his newly widowed mother. Along the way, the artist discovered wood carving. “I didn’t know what kind of tools I should use,” he said in a later interview. “To me, that was unimportant. I just used hope.”
Trips back to Mexico proved pivotal to Medellín’s artistic development. In 1929, after meeting Frida Kahlo, Carlos Mérida, and other artists in Mexico City, he toured the country’s’ Gulf Coast on foot. “As he was visiting ancient ruins and looking at ancient stone carvings, he was also really taken by what he described as art being made by real people living in the small villages he passed through,” Castro told Hyperallergic on a recent tour of the exhibition. “They worked with clay and stone in a way that was incredibly direct, and lacked any of the kind of art world pretensions that he saw in American art. Those local artists inspired him to create something that was very tied to community, place, and identity.”
Medellín returned to Mexico with his young family in 1938 to sketch and study the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and other sites. The relief carvings he observed there later inspired a number of projects, including a series of linocut prints, drawings, and other works. Many of these are on display in the exhibition, allowing viewers to appreciate Medellín’s historically referenced pieces in two dimensions.
The artist’s work from ancient sources coincided with more contemporary and political themes. Medellín’s striking, solemn sculpture “The Hanged Man” (1939), of a shirtless young man hanging from a noose, echoes the brutality of both the artist’s childhood, and of his present day. “The hanged figure appears in a lot of art depicting the Mexican Revolution, and we know that it was a common sight for people during the conflict,” Castro explained. “But he also carved this in 1939 in Denton, Texas, which was still deep in Jim Crow. There was a large presence in the area of KKK activity and violence, so for me, there’s a resonance between this work and depictions of the lynchings of Black men in the American South.” Tragically, lynchings were still ocurring in Texas when Medellín carved this piece.
Throughout his career, Medellín struggled with the ways that he and his artwork were received by others. The artist lived in Texas for most of his life and became a United States citizen in 1942. However, he was not always considered an American artist, and his work was sometimes racialized and even called “primitive.” Later in life, Medellín described himself as “an American of Mexican heritage,” but he generally rejected labels. For example, as Chicano activism gained traction in the US, the artist was uneasy about his work being used in publications about the movement. Medellín’s turn to abstraction in his later work might have been a way of further resisting categorization.
“He’s wrestling with the same problem that people still wrestle with: being identified a certain way,” Castro noted. “Medellín believed in the universality of art. While an identity might bring useful attention to his work, he also worried that it could pigeonhole or limit him.” More than anything, Medellín wanted his work to speak for itself, and to speak widely. As he wrote in 1980, “Art is really universal and belongs to all people.”
Octavio Medellín: Spirit and Form continues at the Dallas Museum of Art (1717 N Harwood Street, Dallas) through January 15, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Mark Castro.