’Photography in Mexico’ at SFMOMA

  • by Chris Sosa, BAR Contributor
  • Saturday April 21, 2012
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"Ponzoña, Arena Coliseo" (ca. 1983) by Lourdes Grobet, gelatin silver print.
"Ponzoña, Arena Coliseo" (ca. 1983) by Lourdes Grobet, gelatin silver print.

If you're interested in uncovering a wealth of photography, Mexico might not be the first place you'd look. But the origin and intensity of the remarkably muscular imagery produced by our neighbors South of the Border are among the surprises that make Photography in Mexico: Selected Works from the Collections of SFMOMA and Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser such a rewarding experience. The sprawling new show at the museum is a reminder that Mexico is more than Cabo-Wabo on spring break, or the corruption-ridden, brutally poor country where rival cartels murder each other and rack up the body count of innocent casualties.

Occupying the majority of the third floor and covering the 1920s to the present, a period of cultural and political upheaval following the Mexican revolution, the exhibition includes over 150 works by more than a dozen Mexican photographers, as well as by major American and European artists who found inspiration there.

Encompassing an impressive range of subjects - migration, injustice, indigenous peoples, the political, social and physical landscape, rapacious development, race and glaring disparities in class - the show puts a powerful foot forward with its opening gallery. It's filled with wonderful photographs by Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, who lived in Mexico together for several years during the 1920s.

For anyone who saw SFMOMA's Modotti show several years ago, many of the pictures will be familiar, and they only improve upon repeated viewing. One can see not only how these two influenced each other, but also Modotti's gradual emergence from Weston's formidable aesthetic shadow as she forged a style and identity all her own. Her sea of sombreros in "Workers Parade," which resembles a field of flowers in full bloom, seems to reflect an artistic lineage with "No. 2 Ollas," Weston's collection of clay pots, abstract shapes that look like displaced ocean dwellers. In his "Maguey Cactus, Mexico," a plant spreads its prickly wings in an arc-like rays of the sun. Shadows fall across Weston's mysterious "Pirmide del Sol, Teotihuacn," lending mythic eloquence to the imposing stone structure, and then there's Modotti's "Rafael on Roof Deck," exquisite in its simplicity, light and composition. That Modotti triggered a heavy if previously submerged sensuality in the cerebral Weston is evident in his luscious, unabashedly sexual nudes of his lover. A particularly arresting photograph showing her voluptuous naked breast spilling out of a half-open kimono retains its formalism while conveying desire.

Of greater interest to the uninitiated will be works by accomplished Mexican photographers little-known to Americans, such as Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who became the country's most famous photographer. While working as an accountant in his early 20s, he was influenced by Weston, and especially by Modotti, who became his mentor. Bravo experimented with light a la Weston, and skated along the edge of Surrealism, transforming the mundane into the fantastic, as in the eerie close-up of broken statuary, "Angel of the Quake." He also excelled at poetic imagery. In "The Good Reputation Sleeping," a female student, her half-naked body swathed in bandages, stretches out languidly on a concrete roof, drinking in the midday sun, and in "The Daydream," an introspective young girl gently leans against a second-floor railing. But, in contrast, some of his work can be forcefully blunt, like "Striking Worker, Assassinated," a picture of a bloodied corpse, dressed in a bright white striped shirt, lying dead on the ground.

Since the age of 12, leading crime photographer Enrique Metinides, a.k.a. El Nino, was something of an ambulance chaser whose morbid fascination with traffic accidents, bus crashes, mud slides, avalanches, derailed trains, the retrieval of dead bodies, fires, murders and other forms of carnage led to his being hired at 14 by a popular nota roja (bloody news) rag. As one might surmise, his grisly images of horrifying things befalling other people make for a can't-bear-to-look, can't-stop-staring viewing experience. Shaped - or warped - by gangster and detective films, Metinides, always on the hunt for natural and unnatural disasters, was glued to emergency radio frequencies so he could be first on the scene.

After years photographing indigenous peoples and the underclass, Lourdes Grobet trained her attention on the ritualized theatrical arena of professional wrestling known as lucha libre. In striking pictures, she immortalizes its masked, costumed participants, who could have stepped out of an S&M dungeon or been executioners for Henry VIII. She portrays the luchadores in and out of the ring, and it's hard to gauge in which realm they'd be scarier. Engaging in an age-old spectacle, these modern-day gladiators, safely anonymous behind their masks, stun and disorient their opponents, but the average guy would probably just faint from fright.

A chronicler of contemporary class wars, Yvonne Venegas spent years documenting the lavish lifestyle of the privileged, super-rich Maria Elvia de Hank, wife of millionaire entrepreneur and former Tijuana mayor Jorge Hank Rohn. A tacit essay in incongruity, her series of large color inkjet prints provides a glimpse of an indulgent material world off-limits to all but a very few in a country plagued by grinding, widespread poverty. Venegas depicts celebrations on the couple's estate, an isolated, Disneyland-like compound that has its own bull ring, stables, private zoo, canine race track, football stadium and casino, amenities no one should be without.

Through July 8 at SFMOMA. www.sfmoma.org

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