April 8, 2006
Joanna Shaw-Eagle, The Washington Times

Prepare to dance through the Cultural Institute of Mexico's "Strange New World: Art and Design From Tijuana" - at least at the beginning. The exhibit, with a title playing on Aldous Huxley's futuristic "Brave New World," features artists who developed during the Mexican border city's recent "strange art hybridization," as its curator, Rachel Teagle, describes it.

The institute's entryway showcases brother artists Jamex and Einar de la Torre's one-story-tall "Tula Frontera Sur (Tula Southern Border)," depicting mariachis belting out traditional songs from the looped video "heart" of the robotic form.

The second "Tula," titled "Tula Frontera Norte (Tula Northern Border)," presents a somewhat envious view of Mexicans looking toward the United States, with images of Neil Armstrong exploring the moon. The robotic sculptures feature Americans and Mexicans "meeting" with juxtaposed beer and tequila bottles, an image of Christ bleeding on the cross, and "legs" made of rifles and golf clubs.

The art on the first floor becomes more serious with Alvaro Blancarte's satiric horse-faced "Self-Portrait" and Hugo Crosthwaite's intricately rendered pencil-and-charcoal drawings of "The Border: Tijuana Cityscapes."

It then picks up with six videos by three artists (Aaron Soto, Ana Machado and Giancarlo Ruiz) and Benjamin Serrano's wryly humorous "La Malinche" (1985). At first somewhat confusing, this is, as viewers discover, one of Mr. Soto's many self-renderings as a transgendered version of La Malinche, the native woman who guided and translated for Hernando Cortes during the Spaniard's conquest of Mexico.

"He pictures himself as La Malinche seated on a toilet at the heart of an imperialist battle for cultural domination," observes Miss Teagle, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. "As in all his work, he's serious in intent, although wry and humorous, about his conflicted role as 'Tijuanense,' who is neither of the First nor Third World."

Don't stop here. Upstairs, Julio Cesar Morales visually chops up Mexican immigrants' Los Angeles food stands in the black-ceilinged, white-walled room installation "Vendors." They appear simultaneously as black silhouettes, tiny clay sculptures on stands, and film clips.

Political statements dominate the show - not surprising with U.S. immigration policy so much in the news. Minuteman Mike Davis watches the Mexican-U.S. border in Marcos Ramirez Erre's multimedia work, with text by Mr. Davis, "The Prejudice Project," which states: "Don't be men for just a minute, be men all your lives." It makes a negative statement about the watchdog group dedicated to blocking Mexican migration into the U.S.

As a whole, the exhibition is charming, witty, often original and well-curated, although viewers may question whether the artists come from a single city or even why Tijuana was chosen by its co-organizers: the San Diego museum and Washington's Cultural Institute of Mexico.

Tijuana and San Diego - just 20 miles apart - have always had strong ties. Miss Teagle does her best, of course, to point out Tijuana's good points in the exhibit's press materials: "Changes observed over the past decade have transformed Tijuana into the second largest city on the American continent's western coast."

Still, most Americans think of the city as highly dangerous, infamous for its ruthless drug cartel.

The curator, however, was highly imaginative in putting together the first in-depth exhibit of the complex, intriguing arts hybridization of the city's struggles with itself.

She notes that the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 marked a political and artistic turning point for Tijuana. Yet, though they are inspired by their formative years in the city, only about 60 percent of the exhibit's artists still live there. Many return for renewed inspiration.

There's a little of everything in this challenging show. An example is Alida Cervantes' conservatively painted "Housekeeper Series" of oil-on-canvas portraits of maids who have worked for her family, each for more than 20 years.

Environmentalists will linger over Jaime Ruiz Otis' "Registros de Labor (Trademarks)" - artworks made from industrial trademarks - as well as his ready-made "fossil" "Craneo de Mono (Monkey Skull)" unearthed in his regular scavenging through maquiladora (manufacturing) dumpers and industrial recyclers.

"This strange PVC bottle, bent, compressed and darkened by fire, is both a warning of a future when synthetic plastics will be the fossils of our era as well as an invented historical artifact of a fictional past when nature and industry formed a hybrid species," Miss Teagle writes. But the de La Torres' "Tulas" win hands down as the show's most provocative pieces. Now based in San Diego much of the time, the brothers often return to their Tijuana studios.