Category Archives: Contemporary Art

VIDA: The Textured Work of Juanita Pérez

Colombian-Mexican artist, Juanita Pérez in front of two of her works that are part of VIDA, an exhibit at Casa Lamm

Juanita Pérez is an extremely talented, unique artist. Her work is unlike that of any other artist I have seen. It projects her life – layers upon layer of elements built up to produce the final oeuvre, which emits a strong, sensual, energetic message. Her art is hard to describe in words. It is complicated, yet at the same time simple.

Three pieces that are part of her current exhibit

It is a collage of sorts, but not in the traditional sense of cut-out figures, pasted on a stark background. Juanita combines textures, patterns and diverse materials, telling her story in canvases covered with paper, textiles, oil colors and much more. Colombian-born, she formally studied art in the United States before making Mexico her permanent home. Her life narrative is reflected in the dynamics of her work – vivid, colorful, active, complex, rich, profound, coherent and vibrant.

An rich combination of colors, textures and materials makes Juanita's work unique

Many people shy away from abstract art since, unlike figurative art where forms and figures are clearly identifiable, abstract art leaves the viewer much leeway to interact and interpret the pieces – which is often uncomfortable for the neophyte. Juanita reassured me that this is exactly the point of this genre. The viewers “in abstract art have more opportunities of interpretation and freedom to invent their own stores.”  She hopes that her art is a trigger for the viewers to immerse themselves in their own dreams and adapt her images to their own emotional imprints.”  Thus, there is no correct or incorrect way of interpreting art.  According to the visual artist, art is free and open.

Luna y Viento (The Moon and the Wind), a mixed technique (144cm x 168 cm)

Her current exhibit, entitled “VIDA” or “LIFE” is on display at Casa Lamm, a unique Cultural Center which combines classes, workshops, exhibits and a variety of cultural activities. I have a soft spot in my heart for Casa Lamm, since that is where I began my current career as historian-guide-teacher over a decade ago!

Cosas y pensamientos nocturnos (Things and Nocturnal Thoughts), a six piece collection (each 43 cm x 43 cm)

VIDA contemplates and reflects on certain aspects of Pérez’s life and memories. To project these, the catalogue of this show explains that “she has chosen to use (papel picado) to symbolize festivals, remembrances, sacred rituals and childhood. The telling of stories, elaborate games, remembrances of things past, are concealed in the intricate patterns and colors of this integral and powerful manifestation of Mexican life.”

Juanita and I at her exhibit entitled VIDA (or LIFE)

A personal concern of mine is how attached the artist becomes to her pieces. In fact, in previous work, Juanita has included elements as intimate as passports, photos and maps, which are an extension of her very personal life, yet she insists that she is only attached to her work during the process of painting. After she has finished a piece, she lets it go.

Pedacitos de cielo y agua (Pieces of the Sky and Water) showcased on the catalogue cover of VIDA (145 cm x 105 cm)

Be sure to check out Juanita’s latest work at Casa Lamm, which is divided on two floors of the gallery.  And good news – the show (originally scheduled to close January 4th) will be extended until January 20th, 2012!  Her pieces will be available for private viewing after that date, so be sure to drop by Casa Lamm for an uplifting visual treat!


Edmundo Aquino, XXI Century Renaissance Man

An oil painting reflecting Edmundo Aquino's abstract leaning

If ever there were a renaissance artist in the XXI century, Edmundo Aquino is one.  His talent spans virtually every genre – from traditional academic drawings, to abstract oil painting, to woven tapestries, to lithographies, prints and engravings, to bronze sculpture to glass art.  You name the art form and Edmundo has mastered it.  Not allowing his creative expression to be hampered by a single artistic form, he continues to experiment with content and form.

The Oaxacan artist in his Coyoacan studio-home

When asked how he categorizes himself, he very politely claims he is a “visual artist” refusing to pigeon-hole himself with a specific adjective, or favorite style.  The eternal iconoclast, he has opted to spurn many well known galleries in Mexico City to afford himself the freedom of expression to promote his works personally, which is why he is perhaps better known in European circles and in the United States than in Mexico, where his pieces are showed with frequency.  To be fair, he does have pieces in the permanent collection of the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico, it just seems that he has not been given his due recognition here in Mexico!

Aquino's realistic-academic drawing style, very uncharacteristic of his more favored abstract, contemporary tendencies

Of Zapotec descent, born in the small Indian village of Zimatlan in the Valley of Oaxaca, Edmundo’s creative drive brought him to Mexico City in 1949, at the tender age of 9.  Not only a graduate of the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, but also a former teacher there (as well as at the Fine Arts School in Oaxaca), his career came at the heels of the Greats who passed through those halls – Rivera, Siqueiros, Tamayo, Orozco, Dr. Atl, some of whom he had the pleasure of meeting personally.

A sampling of the artist's small-format Mexican marble sculptures

Edmundo believes that his greatest achievement has been to live as an artist for over 50 years dedicated to his profession and creative production.  His art is, indeed, a reflection of the many cultures and artists that have touched his life from around the world, which is why he considers himself an heir to the whole tradition of art, and is very motivated by Mexican culture, as well as by all contemporary manifestations of art.   Another rewarding facet of his creativity is the promotion of social and cultural activities in his hometown and other nearby towns and villages in his native Oaxaca.

Glass work - Edmundo's latest passion!

Edmundo has written part of his memoirs, some poetry and many short texts about artistic creation.  His latest challenge is blending his narrative production with a visual accent.  Without a doubt Edmundo Aquino is one of the most versatile and creative Mexico artists around today.  Although the artist is not showing his works publicly at this time, he often participates in collective exhibits.  His next show is scheduled for 2012 at the Casa Limantour in Mexico City.

A new collage-like technique combining his written words with watercolor paintings


Posted by on November 6, 2011 in Contemporary Art, Mavens


Day of the Dead is for the Living!

Day of the Dead festivities are so unique in Mexico that UNESCO has deemed them Intangible Cultural Heritage!

Day of the Dead festivities are so unique in Mexico that UNESCO declared this holiday “Intangible Cultural Heritage” in 2003 (and inscribed it in 2008).  A glimpse into this colorful blending of pre-Hispanic ritual with European religion provides an insight as to how Mexican’s view not only death but also life!

This year's altar at the Dolores Olmedo Museum, dedicated to Olmedo and her mother Maria Patiño Suarez

Día de los Muertos is a special period where families are unite with their deceased loved ones.  It is an annual window of opportunity, lasting 24 hours for deceased children on November 1st (actually beginning at midnight on October 31st and referred to as All Saint’s Day by the Catholic Church) and 24 hours for deceased adults on November 2nd (All Soul’s Day), when it is believed that all the spirits of departed return to Earth for a visit home.

Festive paper mache skeletons playing marimba music!

Personalized altars or ofrendas are prepared with much care and thought to welcome them back.  The most common elements include the fragrant cempasuchtil -orange marigold flowers-  and vibrant red cockscomb, as well as copal incense to purify the altar and attract the returning souls.  Candles light the path for the animas to these offerings; religious images (pictures of saints, Virgins, etc.) and crosses incorporate Christian elements; tequila, cigarettes and the favorite foods (such as mole, a typical dish often served at parties) of the succumbed are set out for the more sophisticated adult tastes, whereas toys and candies are placed on the altars to lure children home.

Candies and toys are set out to allure young children back home

Water and salt are musts for the traditional ofrenda (but often forgotten in more modern settings).  Photos or drawings of the deceased and whimsical sugar skulls complete with humorous poems are combined with seasonal orange-blossom-infused Day of the Dead bread topped with crossbones, making the decoration, and personality, of each altar unique – whether it be humble and makeshift or profuse and elaborate – but always a tribute to those no longer inhabiting our realm.

Festivities at Frida Kahlo's Blue House Museum. This Ofrenda is dedicates to Frida (whose image is to the left in the first arch) and Diego (to the far right in the last arch)

Ancient pre-Hispanic tradition blends well with popular culture.  Death was an integral part of life in Mesoamerican cultures.  Miccailhutontli (Celebration of the Dead) and Huey Miccaihuilt were two of but many festivities reported by Spanish chroniclers on their arrival to the New World.  According to XVI century Spanish Monk Diego de Duran, the actual dates dedicated to the dead were moved by the evangelists to coincide with the Christian calendar, thus launching what continues today to be a unique, syncretic holiday.

This offering, housed in the Anahuacalli Museum, honors deceased Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata!

It is no coincidence that Day of the Dead falls at the end of the agricultural cycle.  Halloween, celebrated the day before, rooted in the ancient traditions of the Celtic Druids (Samhain) also holds that spirits return in this season, marking the start of a fallow period of the Earth, when the land is put to rest.  The main difference between these two holidays, both stemming from ancient native agricultural societies, is that Halloween is laced with fear and concern over the returning malevolent spirits (hence the costumes to confuse and trick the spirits), whereas Día de los Muertos is a joyful celebration, viewed more as a time for family reunion.

Mexican comedian and movie star Cantinflas (Mario Moreno) is honored in this altar in the building which housed the first printing press in all of the Americas

Rather than solemn or gloomy, the bright colors and fragrant aromas set the scene,helping guide the deceased spirits home or back to the cemeteries where they were laid to rest, which is why the graveyards are common partying sites.  Thus the living reminisce to the tune of local music, alcoholic beverages, abundant repast, making the annual gathering one of joy and happiness rather than sadness and sorrow.

Catrina skeletons immortalized in a Diego Rivera Mural, alluding to Jose Guadalupe Posada's controvertial political cartoons which mocked the upper class Porifirian crust

Every year the spaces dedicated to public alters change, but the colorful festivities, general tone of joy, and deeply rooted elements remain constant.  Happy Day of the Dead!

A simple, yet elegant, ofrenda in a colonial building in downtown Mexico City


Museo de la Estampa – NOT a Stamp Museum but a Showcase for Graphic Art

A sampling of graphic work currently on display at the Graphic Art Museum

The Museo de la Estampa (MUNAE) is NOT a museum dedicated to stamps as this false cognate might insinuate, but rather a museum devoted to graphic art, prints and engravings, inaugurated in 1986 to fill the gap in public space earmarked for graphic work.  Do not be put off by the building’s semi-abandoned, somewhat dilapidated façade, particularly in contrast to the oft visited and highly lauded neighboring Franz Mayer Museum to its left.  Both museums are located on the Plaza de la Santa Veracruz (on Hidalgo Avenue), flanked by two churches (San Juan de Dios and The Santa Veracruz Parish Church built in 1586, one of the oldest in Mexico City, from which the plaza gets its name), behind the Alameda Park, yet the Museo de la Estampa rarely gets its due of publicity, and is seldom visited.

The somewhat abandoned aspect of the building housing the Museum

Don’t miss the MUNAE’s currently show entitled “The Double Fold Dream of Art; 2RC – Between the Artist and the Artifact.”    “2RC,” for those unfamiliar with the art world, is one of the most important and well-known contemporary graphic art printing houses, founded in Italy by Valter and Eleonora Rossi. This itinerant exhibit has already toured the United States (in Chicago, Indianapolis and San Francisco) as well as Russia and Saint Petersburg, Indonesia and Japan, and includes the collective work of 40 conceptual European artists, representative of the contemporary graphic arts movement of the 60s, including Francis Bacon, Lucio Fontana, Eduardo Chillida, Henry Moore (studies for his later sculptures), Man Ray, Julian Schnabel and many, many more.

A colonial structure refurbished to house exceptional graphic work

The 160 pieces on display aim to illustrate the idea behind the title of this show.  Although many art forms are achieved solely by the artist (oil painting, sculpting, water color, etc.), graphic arts, by nature, demand a collaborative effort of many players.  This genre of art is produced through teamwork, as required by the process itself.

Another sample of the work coming from the Roman Worshop 2RC

Even if you are not a fan of contemporary art, be sure to check the MUNAE’s calendar of ongoing exhibits which rotate regularly, since the realm of graphic art is amazingly broad – encompassing pre-Hispanic art (made from clay seals which, by definition, fall under the category of print work) to pieces by Dali or Picasso, part of the museum’s permanent collection, and everything in between, including notable Mexican artists who worked in this medium such as Jose Guadalupe  Posada (known for his Catrina skeletons), and Siqueiros and Tamayo, whose works are shown sporadically.  Definitely worth a visit to the grimier northern edge of the city’s first urban park!

An upclose view of a 1980 work of Victor Pasmore


Colorful Sculptures Dot Drab Downtown Plaza

Sebastian's vivid sculptural oasis in downtown Mexico City

 “Sebastian in the Tower” is the name of a current public art exhibit of well-known modern Mexican sculptor Sebastian.  A series of 13 signature medium and large format sculptures, produced from 1980 to date, dot the otherwise drab open courtyard behind the Latin American Tower, hence the name of the show, which shares space with the side atrium of the San Francisco Church in bustling downtown Mexico City.  The elastic, colorful figures are on open-air display in this high pedestrian traffic zone in attempt, according to the artist, to bring his work closer to those who do not habitually frequent museums.  And given that these vibrant, free-form steel and aluminium structures can be appreciated free of charge, are easily accessible, and are hard to miss, they certainly have attracted many on-lookers.

The sculptures to the backdrop of Sanborn's House of Tiles

The names of the works are as animated as the pieces themselves: Conspicuous, Arch of Torus, Shuayo, Tzompantli, the Scorpio, etc.  Among Sebastian’s latest monumental pieces (NOT on display here) is a 60-meter tall X-shaped sculpture to be placed on the Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua – El Paso,Texas border, which will double as a look-out tower.  Why an “X”?  According to the sculptor, the letter X carries an important historic weight. It was Benito Juarez who changed the official spelling of the country from “Mejico” – which, by the way, is still used in Spain today – to “Mexico,” thus giving the nation a new identity, to reflect its true nature of a mixed (mestizo) or assimilated race.  With this latest project, the sculptor attempts to integrate observers into his art work by allowing them the option to climb the X-shaped object de art.

Perhaps Sebastian’s most recognized work is El Caballito, which crowns the busy intersection of Reforma and Avenida Juarez.  Replacing Manuel Tolsá’s famous masterpiece equestrian sculpture of Charles the IV (which was moved in front of the MUNAL Museum, gracing the plaza named after the Spanish neoclassical architect and sculptor), el Caballito doubles as a chimney for the city’s updated deep drainage system, and often spouts white billows of smoke.

The world's most elegant (and expensive) chimney!

The Chimalli Warrior, another work in process, made headlines in August, when it slipped as it was being hoisted to its new home in the Mexico City suburb of Chimalhuacán.  The 60-meter, fire-engine red sculpture, weighing 500 tons, suffered minor dents and scuffs which will require touch up work before its inauguration in 2012.  Again, as is the tendency of Sebastian’s oeurve, it will serve a double purpose – acting as an artistic landmark as well as a light beam to illuminate the zone. Costing 30 million pesos, the Chimalli Warrior required creative financing – aside from funds underwritten by the local government, donations were collected and miniature scale models of the piece were sold to cover expenses.

No need to wait till next February to see the Chimalli Warrior.  Take a stroll down Madero Street, half a block from the Eje Central and check out Sebastian’s vibrant repertoire to the backdrop of the Latin American Tower, and Sanborn’s House of Tiles.


Handicrafts Galore at the Museum of Popular Art, and Good Shopping as Well!

A unique Tree of Life made with intricate ceramic detail

A magnificent collection of Mexican handicrafts can be enjoyed in the MAP or Museo de Arte Popular (Museum of Popular Art).  This fantastic museum, located half a block from the Alameda Park in downtown Mexico City, is a remarkable example of what can be achieved with a little commitment, elbow grease and collaboration (in this case between the Mexico City government, the Federal Government, CONACULTA or National Council for Art and Culture and a very active and highly visible group of volunteers).  The museum building is an outstanding art deco 1920s firehouse, which has been painstakingly re-purposed into a noteworthy showcase for a formidable array of arts and crafts and folk art hand-picked from artisans and private collections around the country.

A few handmade baskets on display

Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon (worthy of separate blog entry) masterminded the architectural make over, taking full advantage of the once open patio where firetrucks were once parked (and I may add, the backdrop to the hilarious 1952 Cantinflas movie El Bombero Atómico – the Atomic Fireman).  Have lived many distinct lives over the years (aside from a firehouse, it held Treasury Ministry offices, and Naval offices), it was given yet a another reincarnation after the devistating 1985 earthquake.

Piñatas hung in the central patio, part of an annual contest

The museum’s fare is is curiously grouped by themes (daily life, festivities, etc.) rather than by typical geographic or ethnic divisions, which allows for more interesting viewing, since sundry baskets from around the country are displayed side by side, showing the vast creativity and variety of workmanship.  Indigenous garments, many of which are still worn today in the nation’s remote countryside, line a wall in tribute to persistent creativity, as is the case with ceramics which contrast in technique, craftsmanship, glaze and purpose, sitting side by side, once again highlighting the impressive diversity of Mexican crafts.  Thus, the MAP’s three floors are chock-full of examples paying tribute to Mexican artists and their talent.

An alebrije or phantasmagoric figure, on Reforma Avenue

Unusual for a museum is the MAP’s outreach efforts.  Much more than a platform for displaying assorted handiwork, the museum actually promotes what was becoming a dying tradition, reinventing new trends in this field and injecting pride and attention among youth.  Aside from ongoing workshops for children, since its inauguration in 2006, it has underwritten annual piñata competitions, hosting Day of the Dead altar exhibits, and sponsors a highly-acclaimed and much-anticipated Alebrije parade with larger-than-life phatasmagoric paper mache animals and figures that are marched through the streets downtown and set up on Reforma Avenue for weeks, drawing heavy crowds.

A sampling of Indigenous garb still worn in small villages around Mexico

The MAP is also a superb spot for picking up a unique or unusual present.  Although a bit pricey, the museum gift shop offers carefully selected items of top-notch quality, as well as hard to find pieces, such as ex-votive painting, hand embroidered blouses, tinware, straw figures, marquetry, ceramics, jewelry, books and calendars.  Plus shoppers can rest assured that the artisans producing these wares were paid fairly for their painstaking labor.  So even if you think you have seen enough Mexican handicrafts to last a lifetime, the MAP collection is a treasure not worth missing.

A VW Beetle, covered by Huichol Indians in 2 million glass beads. After traveling to Paris and Berlin, the car will be auctioned off with funds going to the Huichol community


Posted by on September 28, 2011 in Contemporary Art, Museums


Martie Zelt, An Artistic Inspiration

Martie and I during her last visit to Mexico City earlier this year

I met Martie Zelt a few years ago while I was giving a tour to a group of Fulbright Scholarship holders being prepped for their stay in Mexico.  She was on her way to Xalapa, Veracruz to specialize in papermaking, her passion since 1976.  I did not know at the time that Martie was an accomplished artist, but her charisma and intense curiosity about Mexico set her apart from the herd.  Only later did I come to find out that she was 80,  ex-wife of late Spanish poet Rafael Millán Pinillos, in Mexico as a Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholar.  That was 2008-2009.

The famous Hollander paper beater Martie helped assemble at the Instituto de Artes Plásticas in Xalapa

I have maintained contact with Martie – she is someone you don’t want to lose track of!   Based in New Mexico, she dedicates most of her time to paper and printmaking in her studio located in the Southwest of the United States. She visits Mexico sporadically, where I get the chance to catch up with her –  trying to follow and understand her creative production and development.  Martie has held numerous solo and group exhibitions, not only in US museums and galleries, but also in Brazil, Spain and Mexico.  She has pieces in permanent collections in Princeton and Yale Universities, the Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Institute Museum of Art, the Penna Academy of Fine Arts Museum of American Art in Philadelphia and the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico.

Martie overseeing papermaking, a process more complex than you'd expect!

She recently participated in the VI International Biennial of Contemporary Textile Art with an sample of her latest endeavors.  If you are not familiar with World Textile Art (WTA), it is a recently founded organization, aimed at bridging the gap between the Americas (North and South, that is) by promoting art through on-going workshops and cultural exchange.  This year’s WTA gathering was held  simultaneously in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico City and in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca.

"Peach Walking," handmade paper and collagraph (about 17" x 16," 2009)

Martie became involved with well known artists in Veracruz developing sustainable, fine paper made from local plant materials, while helping design and build a “Hollander beater,” a paper-making machine (dating back to the 1600s) at the Instituto de Artes Plásticas within the Universidad Veracruzana (see photo above) .  With her unending creative spirit and energy, she also initiated a recycling program and an ambitious quilt-size paperwork celebrating about 25 taxi drivers.

"Aire y Sombras" - the piece selected for display during the recent biennial in the Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City (handmade paper, relief print with additions, about 29" x 29," 2011)

She is the author of a 32 foot mural in the Roswell Civic Center, which is a mixed media work using tiles, shards, mirrors an other materials.  Her degree  in mural painting and graphics from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts prepared her early in life for a rich, productive 60 year career.  You are an inspiration  to all of us, Martie.  Can’t wait to see your latest projects!

Martie resting in downtown Mexico City on a Leonora Carrington sculpture - May 2011

NOTE:  All of the photographs in this particular entry were provided by Martie and José Valles Rivera. Thanks for sharing the wealth!


Posted by on September 7, 2011 in Contemporary Art, Mavens