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O.C. ART / CATHY CURTIS : Selling Out at the Bowers : Exhibit Is Largely of Unmemorable Works--That the Owner Wants to Peddle

March 01, 1994

Any art exhibition on a sweeping historical theme that is based entirely on one private collection is bound to be a disappointment. It inevitably has more to do with personal taste than historical breadth, and it cannot seriously compete with a show compiled by an art historian from the resources of major institutions.

But when a museum show consists entirely of works that are for sale at one commercial gallery--as is the case with the "Seven Decades: Modern Mexican Art From the Bernard Lewin Collection," at the Bowers Museum through April 25--disappointment gives way to disgust.

When Lewin--who also owns a massive personal collection of Mexican art--decided to limit the scope of this show to the stuff he'd like to sell, the die was cast.

Not even the museum's decision to turn curatorial duties over to Shifra M. Goldman, a research associate at the Latin American Study Center at UCLA and a professor of art history at Rancho Santiago College, can redeem such a colossal commercial- cum -vanity showcase.

FOR THE RECORD - Clarification
Los Angeles Times Monday March 14, 1994 Orange County Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
BOWERS MUSEUM--A review March 1 of an exhibit at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana made an inaccurate reference to the curatorial staff there. The staff consists of Paul Apodaca, curator of Native American and folk art, and Armand Labbe, director of collections and research. There is no fine art curator on the staff.

Lewin, a former furniture retailer who opened his first art gallery 26 years ago in Beverly Hills, was initially attracted to Mexican art by the paintings of Rufino Tamayo, a European-influenced artist whom the dealer has called "the most compelling force in my quest to promote the Mexican masters."

It probably won't come as a surprise that this is not a show about major works of Mexican modern art.

With some exceptions, the 74-piece show contains a raft of unmemorable paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture. It is the sort of work that is marketable to the American middle class because of its "universal"--read soothingly traditional -- subject matter. Major artists are represented by minor work--often made years after their major achievements--and most of the minor artists seem very minor indeed.

Goldman's approach to the impossible task of turning the idiosyncratic contents of a gallery into a meaningful exhibition was to organize aesthetic and social developments in Mexican art into four categories: pre-1920 precursors of modernism; the era of public art and social realism (1920s-1940s); international styles adapted by artists active from the late 1920s to the present; and a nebulous category Goldman calls "new images, new directions," which seems anything but.

This overview was a reasonable tactic, but it lets too many details get lost by the wayside, and viewers are frequently hard put to comprehend how the works they see fit within the context of Mexican political and cultural history, or even the artists' careers.

The strongest intertwining strains in 20th-Century Mexican art--a passion for digging up indigenous roots, social militancy and a penchant for the fantastic--can be traced back to the earliest artists in the show, Gerardo Murillo (a.k.a. Dr. Atl) and Jose Guadalupe Posada.

The other major strain--indebtedness to European modernism, particularly Surrealism and Neoclassicism--all too often comes off as a flaccid, derivative enterprise, devoid of the conviction that animates the best social realist work.

Atl, whose labored colored drawings of volcanoes reflected his scientific interests, took his adopted surname from the Nahuatl language. He insisted that Mexican artists develop national themes instead of leaning on European subjects.

Posada, a former farm laborer, protested social conditions and political crises in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with grotesque caricatures that reached a broad audience in cheap reproductions. (Unfortunately, the three small--and unusually tame--Posada prints in this show are presented without any discussion.)

Any museum show is obliged to underplay the strength of Mexico's great muralists, whose major works are not portable. But Diego Rivera gets truly short shrift here: a trio of unremarkable portraits of now-obscure sitters, including American artist Ralph Stackpole, whose relationships to the artist are not discussed.

The sampler of work by Jose Clemente Orozco is of greater interest. A 1935 caricature of "Tourists and Aztecs" skewers broad-shouldered Ugly Americans averting their glances from a ragged group of diminutive, ailing Mexicans.

Decadent images of sprawling, dancing prostitutes in an undated lithograph that owes a major stylistic debt to German Expressionism ("Women") would become compelling symbols of the decay of civilization in such Orozco murals as "Catharsis" at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City (reproduced in a photograph).

David Alfaro Siqueiros, the other member of the mural movement's " los tres grandes ," is represented by another potpourri: paintings from about 1930 and landscape studies from 1963. The best is "Mother and Child," in which the dead weight of a sleepy child contrasts with his mother's waltzing embrace in the confined space of a small room.

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