CHICAGO — Alberto Aguilar is in the National Museum of Mexican Art. Not literally, not right this minute, but he has been here recently, and he has been busy. This matters because Aguilar makes art out of whatever’s around, wherever he happens to be. When his four children were younger, that often meant the stuff of domestic life, and he was forever arranging temporary sculptures in his and other people’s homes out of laundry trees, duct tape, chairs, and hula hoops. On a visit to Los Angeles, he fashioned lines in the street out of fallen pink flowers; in Havana, he used corn cobs being dried for fighting chickens to eat. At the Art Institute of Chicago, he created geometric murals out of leftover exhibition wall paint. In between here and there, this and that, he has sketched hundreds of Drawings in Passing, clever doodles and wordplays mostly done in pen on yellow mini-legal paper pads, where the printed lines might become the pattern in a tapestry or the scaffolding for a sloping list of 50 ingredients to be used in mole sauce.
To do any of this, and especially to do it for the two decades that Aguilar has been a practicing artist, requires a very particular set of skills and attitudes. These include being a masterful arranger, a developer of usable systems, and a seer of potential, as well as being indefatigably playful and improvisatory, brave with colors, and never too serious. Much is possible when someone thinks and acts in these ways, and much of that possibility is on display in Yo Soy Museo: New Works by Alberto Aguilar at the NMMA, up through February 2023.
Yo Soy Museo seems at first to belong to the category of artist-curated collections shows. It features a selection of masks from the museum’s holdings, including a dizzying one with straggly vegetable fiber hair, bony protrusions, and a concentric black and white pattern that would make an Op Art painter blush. There are ceramic animals, pottery and glassware, art books, miniature sculptures, abstract wooden reliefs, photographs, wall hangings, posters, and more. The presentation is orderly and well balanced, complete with glass vitrines, plenty of risers and pedestals, lengthy wall labels, and a pair of benches for viewers to sit. So far so good. Indeed, I have no doubt that Aguilar could curate a terrific collections show, except that Yo Soy Museo is no such thing. If it were, only the masks would have made the cut. And they wouldn’t each be hung at the center of an old museum exhibition poster. The resulting superimpositions range from the heretically challenging — that op art mask, by an indigenous Sonoran tribe called the Comáac, partly obscures a 17th-century painting of saints and cherubs from the show Images of Faith — to the aesthetically suave — for instance, a carved wood dog mask, whose neutral tones and markings match those of the abstraction used on a poster for an exhibit of contemporary Mexican art.
Adjacent is a wall covered in a grid of 27 photographic self-portraits. Not unlike the poster-mask juxtapositions, in each of these Aguilar’s face is cloaked by some situational prop: a black cat, an upside-down basket, a bouquet of flowers, an outdoor sign, an empty rice sack, vertical blinds, a wall at the beach with a head-sized hole. There is no limit to what can become a disguise, it seems — even a slice of white bread can work. Much of this is hilarious, but not all — there’s something a little sad about a man with only a red and black basketball for a face, and people with bags on their heads recall hostage and torture situations. This variety of registers, from the comic to the tragic, feels in keeping with what I take to be the overarching principle of Yo Soy Museo, but also Aguilar’s practice more generally: that just about anything can become something else, given the right approach to materials, situations, and self.
The remainder of Yo Soy Museo is concerned with the kind of materials that a feisty archivist might unearth in the far corners of an institution that, while housing a significant permanent collection of Mexican art from both sides of the border, has remained deeply committed to the local community that founded it in 1987. What’s an artifact, what’s an artwork, what’s a prop, what’s decoration, what’s disposable — these are slippery questions at the NMMA, and ones that Aguilar has taken up with great enthusiasm and delightfully unforeseeable results, including floating shelves built from overstock Gunther Gerzso catalogues and a pair of zippy murals whose colors and shapes derive from leftover Día de Muertos paint and props. The museum is beloved for its annual Day of the Dead exhibit, which features ofrendas newly commissioned each year from contemporary artists. Plus, you can get sugar skulls decorated with the names of dearly departed loved ones.
“Present Memory (A Revision),” an altar-like wall-sized assemblage, features items of special significance to the history of the NMMA: its sun-faded original sign, a framed photograph of Cesar Chavez and Carlos Cortéz with museum staff and board members, LPs from Cortéz’s archive, a mosaic commemorating the museum’s 10-year anniversary, Cortez’s personal record player, 30 years of the left-wing Mexican periodical Proceso, a photo of Mayor Harold Washington attending the museum’s inaugural exhibition.
But nothing is presented as it ever was or ever will be again, a mutability especially apt when dealing with memorabilia. The records are obscured by banners of white papel picado; the turntable and magazine bundles act as pedestals for toy luchador rings filled with gift shop figurines; an upside-down audio dome, filled with plastic oranges and bananas used in Día de Muertos exhibits, becomes an enormous suspended fruit bowl; painted wooden photo prop stands are hung on the wall like a series of abstract reliefs. Artfully arranged glassware from the museum’s lunchroom, broken ceramic jaguars from the gift shop, even a coiled air compression hose are here, too; though not of obvious historical import to the institution, they are nevertheless a part of its history. Aguilar makes sure they look like they belong.
One of the very few items in Yo Soy Museo that has not been obviously subjected to Aguilar’s exuberant interpretation is a set of 13 balls made from paint and masking tape. These are the work of Luis Martín Gamez, or rather, they are the remains of his work: Gamez is a facilities associate at the NMMA and has been the in-house gallery painter for years. The balls are presented with reverence in a vitrine and ordered by size, the exception that proves the rule: anything can also, always, be an artwork. It’s not so far a stretch to go from there to the title of this exhibition. Yo Soy Museo, put another way, means anyone can be a museum.
Yo Soy Museo: New works by Alberto Aguilar continues at the National Museum of Mexican Art (1852 W. 19th Street, Chicago, Illinois) through February 12, 2023.