December 2006, pages 76-77
Leah Ollman, Art in America

An ever-expanding cultural laboratory that thrives on unpredictability, Tijuana exudes raw energy. This hybrid vigor is on ample display in a current survey of art and design from the area. (Report from San Diego)

Exhibitions on and about the U.S./Mexico border have proliferated in San Diego and Tijuana since the 1980s, but the traveling show "Strange New World: Art and Design from Tijuana," recently seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's two venues, is the first to focus attention on Tijuana itself, as urban phenomenon and incubator of culture. With 130 works by 41 artists, architects and designers, the show filled both the museum's main La Jolla facility and its downtown San Diego annex, but still only hinted at the qualities of expansiveness and raw energy that define Tijuana. City demographics are stunning: Tijuana has a population of over 1.2 million; its urban region expands by 8.6 acres per day; half the houses are constructed by their owners, using discarded materials from the U.S.; 37 percent of its homes have no running water; a quarter of a million people cross the border daily. The dynamism and unpredictability of the city itself overshadow most of the art made there. The exhibition catalogue attests to the power of Tijuana's spell: photographs of the city's jumble of textures far outnumber reproductions of art.

"Strange New World" is not about the border per se, but, as catalogue essayist Norma Iglesias Prieto puts it, "Every one of the everyday practices of [Tijuana's] inhabitants bears the mark of the asymmetrical power relation between Mexico and the United States." This condition manifests itself visibly in an esthetic of resourcefulness and improvisation, reflected in the vibrant architectural visions of Teddy Cruz, the irreverent extravaganzas of sculptors Einar and Jamex de la Torte, the deconstructed meditations on street vending by Julio Cesar Morales, and the graffiti- and comics-inspired paintings on scrap plywood by Charles Glaubitz. All these artists prefer materials derived from the street to those of the studio; recycling, adapting and synthesizing are common practices. Nortec music, fusing Northern Mexican traditional styles and techno, has become Tijuana's most successful artistic export. A comparable practice of sampling permeates the visual arts--a media-savvy, internationalized version of assemblage that exultantly embraces hybridity.

Curator Rachel Teagle weighted the show toward the burgeoning scene of the past decade, but included earlier work by several important progenitors, such as the crusty canvases of Alvaro Blancarte and the wry sculptures and paintings of Benjamin Serrano. Marta Palau, also among the older artists, is represented by an elegant recent installation of tiny ladders fashioned from raw twigs. Institutions for teaching and exhibiting art in Tijuana are barely a generation old and still relatively scarce for such a big city. Artists have had to be resourceful professionally, as well as materially. Two whose reputations have justly spread beyond the region are Hugo Crosthwaite, maker of brooding cityscapes and intense narrative drawings that marry the epic and concrete, and Marcos Ramirez ERRE, whose publicly sited sculptures (and, in this show, a billboard) manage to be at once succinct, ambiguous and morally provocative.

One consistently absorbing facet of the show is its Web site [], designed by Angeles Moreno. Each artist in the exhibition is represented as a burnt-orange silhouette within one of four compressed, amped-up montages of Tijuana--panoramas of the neon enticements of the city at night, the sprawl of makeshift hillside dwellings, the signage-saturated downtown and the international border, with its endless rows of crossing cars and its surreal fence marching blithely into the sea. Clicking on an artist brings his or her catalogue entry to the screen: portrait, bio, reproductions and brief essay.

Navigating the virtual site, complete with an all-Tijuana soundtrack of more than 40 tunes, feels more like a real, bumpy jaunt through the fertile chaos of the city than does touring the exhibition itself, where not all of the artists are shown to their advantage. The Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo's installation barely conveys a spark of the group's vitality in the '80s, and work of slight merit shares the walls with powerful sociological statements. Many metaphors for the border emerge--likening it to a scar, a clouded mirror and a dam--but the one that dominates, and justifies even the weaker aspects of the exhibition, is that of the city of Tijuana as laboratory, percolating with promise.

Leah Ollman writes for the Los Angeles Times.