A bracing new exhibition at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History tells an interwoven tale of the triumph of a group of culturally endangered artists and the persistence of one of art's great visual one-liners. It's titled "En Calavera: The Papier-Mache Art of the Linares Family."
Roughly translated, "en calavera" means "as a skeleton." It refers to the timelessly resonant image of the coat rack of human bones dressed in the garb of the living. The motif tells the species everything it needs to know to make it renounce its vanity and violence. Instead, humankind goes its venal way, compounding the cosmic joke. We know we're a collection of walking corpses, but we just won't take the lesson. No wonder the skull laughs.
The image is historically omnipresent from pre-Columbian skull mosaics through medieval memento mori and "alas, poor Yorick." It stalks our streets at Halloween, but no occasion uses the motif with merrier macabre abandon than the Mexican Day of the Dead. It's a regular carnival of grimacing candy skulls and papier-mache bones.
Traditionally these effigies were fashioned by anonymous folk artists living hand-to-mouth between the various delirious Mexican fiestas. Over time, their situation worsened. Fireworks were banned in 1957. That wiped out the Holy Week market for big figures of Judas being burned by exploding firecrackers. Mass-produced cheap plastic figures further eroded the market. Mexican folk artists became an endangered species.
The Linares family survived through luck, pluck, talent and adapting to the times. The clan's lineage as makers of fiesta props around Mexico City goes back a century. Their name dates from the 18th Century. An ancestor, Don Antonio Chocolpa, chief servant to a wealthy Spanish household, was wrongly accused of stealing some silver and banished to the town of Linares. He was found innocent and returned, but he kept the name of his place of exile.
Subsequent Linareses stuck together by sticking together paper-and-glue papier-mache figures. The patriarch of the present generation was Don Pedro Linares, who died in 1992. He lived to see himself and his progeny evolve from faceless craftsmen to recognized artists making signed works for the carriage trade. Their initial boost came from artists such as Diego Rivera who appreciated their exceptional talent.
Now Linareses tour the international art circuit and indulge in inter-family rivalries. Their works are included in extravaganzas as prepossessing as the 1989 "Magicians of the Earth" at Paris' Beaubourg center. That show, a melding of mainstream and grass-roots art, was a Brobdingnagian disaster largely because the earthy directness of the populists made the overworld guys look effete.
But the exhibition had the virtue of predicting the present situation. The end of the Cold War sounded a historic call for a new art. Some observers think it will come from oppressed ethnic minorities. That would be entirely apt, since the modernist subculture is an alienated minority itself. It just got bum-rapped as elitist when it was really a meritocracy.
Now the Linareses become exemplary in being the first folk art clan to be accorded a one-family show at the Fowler. The show is the brainchild of the museum's late Collections Manager, Robert V. Childs, and its organization was completed by Susan N. Masuoka, who wrote the affectionate and handsome catalogue.
Sounds like a story with a happy ending. But why are those skeletons still grinning? They know the price of success in Vanity Fair--politics, careerism, hollow celebrity and art that is ever slicker and even more vacuous.
The Linareses don't seem headed that way. Maybe it's the constant reminder provided by working with subject matter that looks death in the eye and laughs.
The figures known as alebrije provide a ready example. Fantasy monsters of the imagination, a chronological grouping shows their evolution from cuddly chimera to elaborate dragons of the mind. Miguel and Felipe Linares are particularly adept at making these delightfully scary figures. They blend Aztec ferocity with the ingenuity of movie special-effects fiends, and they're decorated with intricate patterns that look like something invented by a computer doing fractal geometry.
Subject matter grows ever more sophisticated, moving from pinatas to life-size tableaux such as "The Aztecs." It poses the timeless question: "Why are these proud dead warriors killing each other?"
It was virtually fated that the Linareses do tableaux based on the revolutionary woodcuts of J.G. Posada, another popular artist who became a museum icon. Their flying version of his "Don Quixote" is all the more mordant for having a lighter touch.
Moving to the borders of the fine-art realm expanded the Linareses' field of vision to include present-day pop culture, so there are little figures of hip-hop skateboarders alongside traditional mariachi musicians, en calavera.
Any lingering doubts about the expressive status of this work will vanish with one look at "Earthquake Scene." Based on the aftermath of Mexico City's disastrous 1985 temblor, it's an absurdist masterpiece. Life-size, and involving a dozen sculpted figures, it combines the humanity of skeletons trying to rescue one another with the horror of a skeleton soldier about to shoot a skeleton kid for looting a television set. We just never learn.
* UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 405 Hilgard Ave., Westwood, through July 16, closed Monday and Tuesday (and Thanksgiving Day). (310) 825-4361.