By Sam Martin and Rebecca S. Cohen
MAY 26, 1998: In Octalan, a tiny Oaxacan village in Southern Mexico, life probably hasn't changed much in the last 50 years. Men still ride their bicycles through the dusty streets, and the old colonial-era church still gongs its bells. Women in dresses carry fruit and bouquets of red flowers past the square while daydreaming on lost love, marriage, and death. Dogs laze in the midday heat. Rodolfo Morales paints.
Like all traditions that persist, Rodolfo Morales' 40-year career has produced something of richness and depth, in this case, a look at Mexican life. Born in 1925, Morales was 48 years old when he had his first solo exhibition (in Madrid, Spain). To support his painting, he taught drawing to high school students in Mexico City, a job he kept for 35 years. In 1985, at the age of 65, Morales retired to move back to Octalan and work as an artist full-time. He has had two other solo shows and numerous combined exhibitions, the most recent one in 1995 in San Luis de Potosí, Mexico. Now through June 6, Mexic-Arte Museum is hosting the first retrospective in North America of the artist's painting and collage work, "Art of Oaxaca: Rudolfo Morales -- Juegos y Evocaciones."
When you first walk into the museum and begin to look at the work on display, you may be struck by an urge to make sure you haven't missed a room or two of the exhibit, some place where the curators have separated Morales' early works or arranged his latest paintings. However, the fact is that the artist's style ó which has obvious influences from Picasso and de Chirico ó and unwavering subject matter haven't changed since he began painting in the 1950s. A canvas from 1967 hangs in perfect continuity next to one from 1996. This is a testament to the deep understanding that Morales has not only of his craft but of his subject matter.
With the village as the central setting, weddings, funerals, and festivals inundate Morales' universe with New World colonial churches and baroque arches sitting solemnly in the background. The predominantly female villagers who populate these scenes engage in the music, dance, and ceremony of everyday activities, while red devils, angels, and mermaids add to the lively, dream-like quality of his world. This theme of the fantastic is rampant in Morales' work, with truncated bodies next to dismembered feet and heads popping up throughout the exhibition.
The figures the artist depicts, however, have a curious lack of expression. In the gouache on paper paintings from the Sixties, a period that seems highly influenced by Picasso's Cubist era and brings to mind that artist's groundbreaking work Les demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), Morales' figures are often faceless and rudimentary. This is not to say the paintings lack emotion. On the contrary, by juxtaposing the figures with each other and the village life around them, Morales seems to evoke the most basic human experience of love, marriage, alienation, death, and nostalgia. The earthy shades of red and pink combined with the yellows and browns of this period also lend to the paintings' emotional presence. In Reunion (1967), the artist posits a couple on the opposite ends of a balcony to depict the chasm between them. The female figure, head tilted down with tears drawn in lines down her cheeks, reaches across the divide to the outstretched hand of her lover who is calling out for his reunited love, depicted as a ghost-like image emanating from the figure's upturned mouth.
Morales' later work sheds the Cubist influences and takes on a warmer and more human quality. The female figures now appear robust and stocky, with more detail given to their faces and hands, and although the characters remain expressionless, these pieces come alive with vibrant village life and rich oil paint colors of blue, green, brown, and red. The diptych Daily Activities Are What Is Real (1996) depicts a ceremony which could be a wedding or a funeral set in the village square that is surrounded by rows of arches. In the foreground, one group of women dances hand in hand while another sits solemnly holding bouquets of red flowers. Close by, two women ó one of them pregnant ó lounge and watch the festivities. Angels drape blue shrouds over the deceased/married figure, who lies atop the arches next to a row of young women's decapitated heads. The piece is perhaps the pinnacle of Morales' long career.
As a collagist, Morales again succeeds in capturing glimpses of a rural, phantasmagoric Oaxaca, and the 10 or so collages, presented beautifully in silver and gold metal frames, are a welcome and vibrant surprise in the exhibition. With string, hair, bits of paper, and postage stamps, Morales has given the viewer a textured look into not only a small village in Mexico but also an evocative and creative mind at work. So, although not much has changed in Octalan, over the years, we can be sure that Rodolfo Morales' work has grown to an insightful and wise perspective of a culturally rich region.
Surprise, surprise. In the gift shop of the Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria, I found beaded candles, magical resin pyramids filled with an odd assortment of objects and symbols, and glycerin soaps with plastic spiders and dinosaurs trapped inside. What wizard has transformed the usual stark, high-design, often functional objets d'art into a somewhat bizarre collection of this 'n' that? Franco Mondini Ruiz, owner of a San Antonio botanica, that's who.
He is also the artist responsible for the first installation-artwork in the current exhibition "Material World." Get ready for a mad assortment of plastic toys and fancy papers, plastic cup spheres and twinkling lights. Mondini Ruiz's site-specific installation, Amor Eterno (Eternal Love) creates "a dialogue between the realms of 'popular' and 'high' art," reads the museum press release. I suppose. But those who choose to visit the museum's 17th annual family exhibition ó young or old, with or without children in tow ó might recognize the grouping of objects and shapes and colors as the artist's way of "playing pretend." Remember when you were little and dumped the contents of your toy box on the floor, arranging the dolls and little soldiers and tissues and plastic spoons and old gift-wrap and whatever else you could find, constructing a private world that was both fun and terror-filled? This guy is still doing it. And he has better stuff to work with than most of us had as kids, as well as a way of ordering his cast of characters that is both powerful and fun. The urge to jump in the middle of the installation and touch everything is nearly overwhelming.
Like Mondini Ruiz, James McGee of El Paso also arranges found objects to create his own private world, albeit one that is much more somber than the San Antonio artist's. McGee's constructions are formal, beautifully crafted, and elegant despite (or because of) the use of rusted metal, broken glass, screening, and rough wood.
This exhibition intends to explore a range of "unconventional materials" used by artists to explore a "range of meanings." It's a pretty vague premise given that most contemporary exhibitions these days feature alternative materials over traditional painting on canvas or paper. But why quibble? Overall, the work is engaging and the artists first-rate. On some of its promotion materials, the museum uses a picture of a world globe with each artist's name and location listed to quickly make the point that the artists' working environments are as varied as the materials they use.
Silvano Lora (Santo Domingo), Ruth Green (Monterey), and Bill Davenport (Houston) share the small center gallery space. Lora, like McGee, uses tin and other metals to construct his images, which tend to be more colorful and a bit more playful than McGee's. Davenport uses crocheted yarn to create soft, sculptural objects, playfully suggesting function, teasing the viewer to guess what they might be. Green's favored medium is candy cast in resin ó the highest and best use of gummi bears and M&Ms that I believe I've ever seen, after the obvious one (keeping children quiet in the grocery store and other public places).
The third gallery includes work by Carl Nash, self-taught artist from Lubbock, whose sculptures (both for floor and wall) were lent by the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie. It is interesting to note how the work of this artist with so little awareness of (or participation in) the world of high art fits so seamlessly and well into this museum exhibition. No need to consider a separate standard for evaluating either of his two bicycle sculptures or the graceful wall-mounted "shoe tree." They hold their own ó and then some ó with the rest of the work in the show, including Laura Cohen's cool black-and-white photos. While I admire the technical proficiency with which Cohen's still-life photography presents objects, highlighting texture and surface, I question it as the most effective choice of medium to round out this particular exhibition.
At first, I also questioned Austinite Sandra Fiedorek's steel panels with enamel symbols, though I came to appreciate the relief provided by their simplicity. Then I went upstairs to the Children's Participatory Gallery designed by Fiedorek and her husband, architect David Heymann. The exhibition would have been incomplete without her! Never, in my memory, has the upstairs gallery been so totally transformed. Flattened cardboard boxes ó grapefruit, banana, apple, and appliance, label-side up ó cover the entire floor, walls, and ceiling of the space. Visitors walk on, lean against, and breathe in cardboard! I wanted to be small again, the better to squeeze through the doorway (reduced in height with cardboard), to crawl into the tiny kid areas created by columns of cardboard, to lounge on the red velvet-draped cardboard lounge. Adults are allowed, of course, to make constructions using any and all of the materials provided by museum docents for children. Upstairs at the museum, everyone can play and pretend.
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