When curator Julie Sasse walked through the “Borderlandia: Cultural Topographies by Einar and Jamex de la Torre” exhibition with the artists in tow, she had a lot of notes to take to help the docents at the Tucson Museum of Art explain the work to museum visitors. With 46 pieces and three installations, many of which come from a recent exhibition of the same name at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, Sasse scribbled down Einar and Jamex de la Torre’s elaborations on the mixed-media sculptures and installations they create, including a wide array of seemingly contradictory allusions to everything from Pee-wee Herman and Carlos Castañeda, Catholicism and Aztec religious beliefs, fast food and the Vietnamese noodle soup pho, the narcotics trade and the Pennsylvania steel industry, and Ricky Martin and the Zapotec peoples in Oaxaca — to name just a few.
The De la Torre brothers inhabit a multicultural, polyglot world, creating works that serve as delightful and thought-provoking funhouse mirrors that distort reality in comical and subversive ways. Whether it’s a reflection of the increasing diversity of athletes in American sports in Nazcar Dad or an homage to the violent Oaxaca rebellion in 2006 through zAppo, the brothers let their imaginations run wild, exploring everything from the cultural significance of fusion cuisine and the deeper side of pop culture to the intersection between Mexican and American cultures and politics. One of the more popular pieces is La Reconquista, a dazzling spin on Renaissance paintings by Hans Memling with such varied figures as Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim Helúand Spanish actor Antonio Banderas that it looks like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album cover. In Pho’Zole, the artists use ethnic cuisine to reflect on Southern California’s spin on the American melting pot. The wall mural mixes porcelain dishes of pho, an Asian noodle soup, with pozole, a similar stew from Mexico. A diptych of robots entitled Tula frontera norte and Tula frontera sur meld blown glass, resin castings, and a slew of found objects (the artists love dollar stores) to express culture both north and south of the border. Tula frontera sur features resin-covered stuffed frogs reminiscent of souvenirs, a glass human heart, two basket-woven figures carrying guns and bullet belts, liquor bottles in the headdress, and a taxidermy raccoon. A TV set in the glass torso screens a video performance by Tijuana-based artist Hugo Sanchez depicting craft items also in the piece from Michoacán, Mexico (Tula frontera norte holds objects from Kansas City).
A standout piece in the exhibition is La Belle Epoch, a delightfully gaudy riff on the Aztec Sun Stone. The 10-foot-tall spinning Ferris wheel comes complete with the brothers’ take on Tonatiuh, the Aztec sun god. Elaborately depicted on the Sun Stone with his tongue sticking out (a symbol of human sacrifice and blood) and a heart in each hand, the brothers keep the garish tongue and swap human hearts for a knife and a liquor bottle instead. Glass hearts symbolizing what people died for?one for arte (art), another for nada (nothing), one for being babosa (foolish)?dangle from one of the two wheels and pass through a red liquid waiting in the canoe-like vessel below. You can watch Jamex de la Torre and staff at the Kimball Art Center disassemble the many layers of the piece here.
While the brothers started exploring political themes long before Governor Jan Brewer signed Arizona SB 1070, the toughest anti-immigration laws on the books in the United States, the Tucson Museum of Art has emphasized the timely relevance of the exhibition in what its website broadly describes as “a particularly contentious time in the Southwest.” This framework may be too narrow to fully encompass the scope of the artists’ interests. “We were dealing with border issues in our work long before the draconian Arizona laws,” Einar told the Hot Sheet. “Only some of our work deals with the regional issues, but living and working here, it does become part of our vocabulary.”
Though just one aspect of the brothers’ work, Sasse has noted positive responses by museum visitors. “They’re very irreverent. They have a dark humor ? think nine-year-old boy meets seasoned politician or activist, which I mean only in the best possible way. One minute it’s very much about them growing up with matchbox cards and then it’s a very serious situation with the narco trade,” she said. “We’re thrilled to have this exhibition. It has kept a lively debate going. It’s a perfect fit for this region and this institution. I think it has enlivened the debate in a very healthy way. The work is as beautiful as it is thought-provoking and I’m glad it’s here.”
— Grace Duggan
IF YOU GO: “Borderlandia: Cultural Topographies by Einar and Jamex de la Torre” February 12, 2011 – June 12, 2011 Tucson Museum of Art 140 North Main Avenue Tucson, Arizona 85701 Tel: 520 624 3333 Website: www.tucsonmuseumofart.org