‘"Selections from the Permanent Collection"’
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Sam Martin, Fri., Nov. 21, 2003
Selections From the Permanent CollectionMexic-Arte Museum, through Nov. 22
The refreshing thing about Mexic-Arte, the Congress Avenue museum that was just designated the official Mexican and Mexican-American Fine Art Museum of Texas by Gov. Rick Perry, is that it hasn't changed a lick in 19 years, even as the downtown around it has. The sleek, tall, Fortress-of-Solitude-like Frost Bank building next door stands in stark contrast to the museum's drafty, second-story windows, simple ochre sign, and dark wood doorway leading to the galleries inside. That's where the nicked and heavily glazed wood floors still creak under foot while the uneven plaster walls remain as stalwart sentries to the city's best Latin American artwork. The more Mexic-Arte stays the same, it seems, the more its Mexican soul resonates through Austin's burgeoning city streets.
That said, the museum's current exhibit, "Selections From the Permanent Collection," is a little decrepit in itself, though that's not all bad. The show is divided into six categories: prints from the Taller de la Gráfica Popular (Workshop of Popular Graphics); prints by José Guadalupe Posada; photographs by Agustín Casasola; photographs of the Tzotziles and Tzotzales peoples of Chiapas; ritual masks from the state of Guerrero; and silkscreen prints from the Serie Project, a local initiative led by Sam Coronado, one of the museum's founders.
Many of the themes you've come to expect with 20th-century Mexican art are present, including the Mexican Revolution, Día de los Muertos, and the struggle of the working class to break the bonds of poverty and political isolation. There are the obligatory photos of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (by Guillermo Zamora), who are no doubt two of Mexico's most inspiring artists from the last century, though I wondered if the images would have been part of the museum's permanent collection had the subjects been less well-known. Also, Mexic-Arte's collection of pre-Columbian ceramic headdresses (the masks are reproductions) represents a fine bit of antiquity in the city, but grouping them with lithographs, woodcuts, and photography from the previous two centuries creates a 1,700-year gap that is a little hard to follow. In fact, the whole show suffers from a confusing setup. To learn a piece's title and artist, you have to find the tiny number next to the artwork and then reference color-coded laminated guides found in separate pockets throughout the gallery. I found myself juggling two or three cards at once and several times I simply gave up, though it wasn't for lack of trying.
And yet, there's something charming about this rusticity, especially if you're forced to just look at the artwork without cluttering up your impression with a bunch of annoying words. José Guadalupe Posada's rough-hewed wood engravings of a pulque bar or a tequila bottle, Pablo Higgins' lithograph of a maguey cactus, and Ignacio "Naco" Lopez's black-and-white photographs of simple Mexican life all capture the spirit of the hard-won but festive land south of the border. Even the later work of the Taller de la Gráfica Popular, also consisting of lithograph and block prints, was formed out of the working man's struggle and the raw political upheaval of the Revolution.
In fact, it's not until you get to the cramped back room, where the contemporary prints are hanging, that the show seems to get a little more refined. Iker Larrauri's Red Bull and Blue Horse serigraphs from the year 2000 are perhaps the most enlightening pieces in the show. (And aren't copies of these two pieces hanging at one of the most enlightening Mexican food restaurants in the city, Fonda San Miguel?) But even then, you get the feeling that the artists whose work is displayed here certainly have no shortage of calluses on their hands.
So on the one hand, "Selections From the Permanent Collection" is a great way to step back in time or to a different country where creaky wood floors and uneven plaster walls are what you're looking for. On the other, let's hope that some of the $20 million the museum has earmarked for a building renovation can go toward better signage.