January 2007
Written by Alessandra Moctezuma, Artforum International Magazine

In late spring 2006, as bitter immigration debates were raging and vigilantes patrolled the border desert, a curious billboard appeared along a San Diego freeway near the United States--Mexico line. The back view of a man dressed in combat fatigues and sporting a crew cut confronted the sprawl of Tijuana a few hundred yards away. DON'T BE A MAN FOR JUST A MINUTE. BE A MAN YOUR WHOLE LIFE, the text at the top obliquely exhorted. Shortly thereafter, an anti-immigration group with ties to the Minutemen placed a red, white, and blue billboard on the other side of the freeway that screamed, STOP THE INVASION. This battle of the billboards was precisely the sort of thing border artists have always sought to accomplish with their provocations: exposure of the hypocrisy, inhumanity, and comic absurdities of the existence of a walled frontier in the Southwest.

The first billboard, with its subtly ambiguous message, was installed by Tijuana artist Marcos Ramirez ERRE and was the signal public artwork of "Strange New World: Art and Design from Tijuana," curated by Rachel Teagle of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. The show was the dazzling culmination of the museum's commitment, for more than a decade, to showcasing art from and about the politically charged border region. Featuring forty-one artists and a hundred-plus works, the show took over the MCASD's space in La Jolla as well as its downtown San Diego branch and celebrated Tijuana's late-'90s creative surge via examples of cutting-edge music, video, and graphic design, also offering a nod backward, in the form of archival film, to the pioneering Border Arts Workshop of the '80s. Although the show's content ran the gamut from abstract painting to digital animation, from lyrical figuration to rigorous Conceptualism, its underlying theme was probably best exemplified by Torolab's multimedia installation, The Region of the Transborder Trousers, 2004-2005, which used GPS technology and video to track the comings and goings of several subjects across the border.

One of the chief fascinations of the exhibition was its documentation of Tijuana's extraordinary transformation, since 1980, from tourist fleshpot to dynamic industrial metropolis. The darker side of this inexorable process was represented here by Sergio de la Torre's "Landscapes," 2000-2005, digitally manipulated photographs of sinister maquiladoras (border factories), and by Hugo Crosthwaite's somber charcoal drawing, Linea: Escaparates de Tijuana 1-4 (The Border: Tijuana Cityscapes 1-4), 2003. Other artists chose to celebrate the city's populist energy and the exuberant collision of modernism and folk-vernacular styles. Teddy Cruz and several other architects, for example, exhibited designs and models inspired by the city's organic development and its clever recycling of materials from the north. Artist Salomon Huerta, meanwhile, offered ironic canvases of Southern California bungalows painted in lurid colors.

Since Tijuana is the product of the meeting of first and third worlds, the exhibition also necessarily included a visual ethnography of class extremes, as in the juxtaposition of Yvonne Venegas's faux fashion shots of young middle-class Mexican women ("The Most Beautiful Brides of Baja California," 2000-2005) with Alida Cervantes's large paintings of domestic workers, whose knowing gazes hint at sly understanding of their employers' supposedly secret deceits. In revealing so many facets of the "strange new world" of its title, the exhibition was highly significant in mapping artistic responses to the region's magical urbanism.