Misogyny and the Myth of the ’90s at Mexico City’s Kurimanzutto

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Kurimanzutto is a pristine, vaulted gallery in the San Miguel de Chapultepec neighborhood of Mexico City. As part of the recent exhibition XYLAÑYNU. Taller de los Viernes, cumbia music drifts over the guard onto the sidewalk, casting a nostalgic spell on the airy space.

The tropical rhythms flow from the radio of a parked car in the entranceway, its windows rolled down. The 2002 Skoda Octavia station wagon has been hand-painted Kelly green and bubble-gum pink, and has chicken bones dangling from an extended front windshield wiper. A gnarled two-by-four is strapped to the roof of the car and a baby’s car seat is buckled into the back. The whole assemblage, titled Autoconfusión (2015), is a piece by Abraham Cruzvillegas. Just beyond, in the gallery’s vine-draped atrium, lounge four Gabriel Kuri sculptures from his series this, please (2010). The vaguely corporate-looking slouched circles are finished with stubbed-out cigarettes wedged into their perforations and creases.

The conceptual jumping-off point for the show is a revisiting of the eponymous gatherings (Taller de los Viernes translates to “Friday meetings”) that took place at the home of Gabriel Orozco from 1987 to 1992. Curated by Guillermo Santamarina, the exhibit presents recent works by five artists: Orozco, Damian Ortega, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Gabriel Kuri, and Dr. Lakra (also known as Jeronimo Lopez Ramirez). These artists met for five years in what has been described as “a playful space of collective work, exchange of information and ideas, experimentations and coexistence.”

In theory, a curator’s statement contextualizes its show. Santamarina’s idiosyncratic piece, however, flings around red-herring declarations in a winking and theatrical un-logic. He appears to take to heart his own notion of the exhibition, that the creative process should be played like a game.

Contrary to the protests of this deliberately confusing text, the framing of the exhibition insinuates that Mexican contemporary art owes a credit to the legacy of the Taller de los Viernes and the work of these five artists as a starting point for the artistic practices we see today. It begins:

I declare that I care very little about the crowning via the promulgation of another (or even an undoubtedly-true-and-everyone-might-was-well-know-it) genealogy of contemporary art in this country […] and even less so about the resulting elbow in the face. Or the little air guitars held up in glory of “ha, ha! I said it firsts.”

The statement reads like a nonsensical smoke screen thrown up to avoid accountability for conceptual holes and what looks like a deliberate lack of curating, prompting the question, why did Kurimanzutto think a curator was necessary for this commercial gallery exhibition?

Meanwhile, a vacuum where context should be provided makes Santamarina’s apparent humility difficult to take.

Informal artist gatherings can leave a lasting imprint on the artistic landscape of a place; they’re well worth reflection and documentation. It’s a tricky proposition to attempt this in a commercial space rather than a museum or cultural center, however, as commercial galleries utilize a shorthand or incomplete allusions to history for market gain. As a retrospective of the Taller, the Kurimanzutto show does not deliver any contextualization, no historic or anecdotal media. There are no images, ephemera, or texts relating to the gatherings. None of the work was produced in the years during which the Tallers were held (the oldest piece is from 2007, 15 years after the end of these gatherings). Similarly, there is nothing to explain why these artists’ production methods were important or unique in Mexico at the time the Taller was in session. No mention is made of the then-dominant mode of classic academy-style art making, or that pre-NAFTA Mexico was (for better or worse) effectively sealed off from the world commercially, academically, and artistically. The sole justification we are given for the exhibition and the specific works included is an unspecified “game” for which the artists gathered and “proposed new works made in the last decade that have never been shown in Mexico.”

Perhaps the exhibition’s premise and execution could be forgiven if the timing wasn’t so conspicuous. However, the show was aligned with the Mexican artworld’s most visible moment internationally, the Zona Maco fair. No doubt this positioning was attractive to Kurimanzutto’s directors (José Kuri and Mónica Manzutto, from whom the gallery gets its hybrid name), as they work to underscore the myth of the Taller de los Viernes as the starting point of contemporary Mexican art, and their gallery as the seat of authority regarding contemporary art history in Mexico.

Certain aspects of the story are true. Gabriel Orozco did host these gatherings at his home in Tlapan from 1987-1992. Participation was limited, albeit informally, to all five of the show’s participating artists as well as to Gabriel Kuri’s brother, José. In the late 1990s Orozco came up with the idea for a gallery in Mexico to represent his work. He recruited José Kuri and Monica Manzutto as directors, and, according to some, he retains part ownership (Kurimanzutto denies this). Today the space is one of the most prominent and powerful galleries not just in Mexico, but in Latin America.

However, as Etgar Hernandez explains in his review of the show, the myth of the Taller as seminal to Mexican art today is a fabrication that was still congealing as dictum as recently as 2000. It seems unbelievable that anyone could maintain that the contemporary artistic production of an entire nation might be traced and reduced to the work of five artists. I regard this as a story told to justify the concentration of certain voices in the field by silencing the contributions of others through omission. When Santamarina claims not to care about coronations or accolades, it smacks of false modesty.

His curatorial approach, which he describes as “a game of parrhesia and theft,” is the equivalent of a curatorial exquisite corpse. Further contributing to the show’s visual confusion is his election to show only recent pieces, which leaves the presented works with little apparent dialogue between them, beyond the “mere series of moments” the artists spent together 30 years ago.

Artistic processes, media, and subjects are left to intermingle with all the complementary sophistication of a neighborhood potluck meal, but they’re lacking the charm. Gabriel Kuri’s bilateral growth (2013) sits swallowed between Santamarina’s wandering exercise of a text and Untitled (2014), Dr. Lakra’s visually domineering record collection. Orozco’s chromed balls, G01174 (undated), are placed almost apologetically, hung low and hidden behind his Blind Signs (2013) installation. The snowy Styrofoam spillage of Damian Ortega’s large vaginal cube Paisagem (2015) blocks the viewer from getting close enough to see Dr. Lakra’s collages of nude pinups, lost amid the white expanse of an enormous and otherwise blank gallery wall.

The accompanying promotional poster featuring five aging artists (and I assume the curator) in Peruvian quolla masks brandishing beers, books, and backpacks brings to mind El Chavo del Ocho’s later days played by an aging Chespirito. At least Kurimanzutto seems to be aware that the self-congratulatory myth of the Taller is growing dated. The yearlong Project Room program, launched this September to exhibit the work of six young Mexican artists, is evidence that the gallery knows that their enfants terribles of the 1990s are no longer enfants. But the motivations behind the Project Room are still unclear. Whether these emerging artists have the real support of the gallery or the gallery is just using their youthful voices as a relevance-refresher remains to be seen.

Taken in light of the gallery’s exhibition history, XYLAÑYNU is a self-serving monument to the mythos behind an old boys’ club. All-male origin myths are depressingly common in Mexico (and beyond), and it’s business-as-usual to see few women artists represented at this gallery. Kurimanzutto’s last two group shows were all male; there hasn’t been any work by a woman in the main space since Minerva Cuevas’s exhibition in October 2015 (which came a full year after the previous such exhibition, by Mariana Castillo Deball). Worse was the two-year gap between Marieta Chirulescu (2013) and Monika Sosnowska (2011). Perhaps this is a rhetorical question, but why do we continue to flirt with a commercial gallery’s canonicity when it so noticeably excludes women’s voices?

Amazingly, sexism and nepotism are minor crimes in this exhibition. The real issue with XYLAÑYNU. Taller de los Viernes is the self-indulgent repackaging of a gallery’s private history as the entire narrative of Mexican art. Any time a claim that bold is made, it should give us pause, whatever the relationships between the institution’s founders and the artists it presents.

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