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ART REVIEW : Exploring the Border Experience : Exhibition: Issues surrounding the U.S.-Mexico dividing line provide metaphor for two-venue presentation.

March 13, 1993|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

SAN DIEGO — The tall, almost classically columnar form of Luis Jimenez's 1989 sculpture "Border Crossing" is one reason its energetic depiction of a Mexican family reads as a visual pillar of strength. Another is that the image claims a powerfully resonant history, incorporating in its complex web half a millennium of social, cultural and religious life.

Part of that history is personal. The sculpture of a man carrying a woman on his shoulders, with an infant's squalling face poking out from beneath a blanket, is an homage to the border crossing made long ago by the artist's own parents.

But the image's history is much broader, too. The piggyback figure of a man crossing the water inescapably recalls St. Christopher, who selflessly carried Jesus across a raging river. It was the image of St. Christopher that Spanish colonialists had held aloft as a self-defining symbol, when they carried the Catholic faith across the ocean in their sweepingly brutal conquest of Mexico.

Finally, Jimenez renders this 10-foot-tall family in vivid, even luridly colored fiberglass--the dramatic, sensual painting evokes the look that Chicanos of the Southwest have traditionally created in their low-rider automobiles.

"Border Crossing" is thus a perfect emblem for the exhibition "La Frontera/The Border: Art About the Mexico/United States Border Experience," and it stands like a monument before the downtown branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art here. The exhibition was jointly organized by former MCA curator Madeleine Grynsztejn and by Patricio Chavez, of the Centro Cultural de la Raza in nearby Balboa Park, where this two-venue presentation may also be seen.

Like all national borders, the line drawn between Mexico and the United States is arbitrary, rendered in definitive terms by authoritative forces of power. As a metaphor, the border is remarkably pungent, a highly charged conceptual space available for occupation and transformation by the individual mind. It's the edge of the past and the frontier of the future, part no-man's land, part creator of cultural fictions.

"La Frontera/The Border" is a timely and important exhibition, especially (but not only) for the city of San Diego. For the curators also wisely conceived of the border as the dividing line between the artistic mainstream and those who have been traditionally marginalized. This border separates the private MCA, whose seaside home base is in the wealthy enclave of La Jolla, and the publicly supported Centro, whose existence in a city park came about through confrontation and protest during the Chicano civil rights movement more than 20 years ago.

Chavez, in his admirable, passionately partisan essay for the catalogue (to be published in mid-May), writes: "One of the cynical manifestations of the ongoing struggle over multiculturalism is the tendency of mainstream institutions and funders to 'go multicultural.' " Resources thus remain within traditional spheres, while established agencies maintain authority.

In her essay, Grynsztejn also notes that several nationally recognized artists who have worked in regions along the Mexican/U.S. border and whose art has been instrumental in shaping recent artistic discourse declined participation, including Guillermo Gomez-Pena, James Luna and Michael Tracy. So, it's significant that the show has nonetheless been pulled off with considerable skill and vigor.

Shown are paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, prints and installations by more than 35 artists. Most work in Southern California, New Mexico, Texas and in such Mexican border areas as Tijuana, Baja and Monterrey, as well as Mexico City.

Some works in the show are indeed provincial derivations of well-known precedents. Patricia Ruiz Bayon's group of life-size figures cast from corn husks are very much like the sculptures of Magdalena Abakanwicz; Eric Avery's politically charged prints in red, white and blue emphatically recall David Hammons' from 20 years ago, and James Drake's abutment of a steel relief of a hunter's trophy wall and a large-scale charcoal drawing of men who are apparently fighting is obviously derived from the similarly mixed-media work of Robert Longo.

Other works are surprisingly perfunctory contributions from gifted artists of recent emergence, such as Julio Galan, or of established reputation, such as Terry Allen. There are documentary photographs of effective if workmanlike quality (Carmen Amato, Louis Bernal and Eniac Martinez). And, a good deal of the work is a familiar brand of protest art, which draws upon heartfelt sentiment and standard motifs from Expressionist and Assemblage art (the Border Arts Workshop, Humberto Jimenez, Alfred Quiroz, Anne Wallace).

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