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ART REVIEW

Refreshing Look at 'Relations' Between Mexico and Ireland

September 14, 1996|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Have you ever thought about possible similarities between contemporary social life in Belfast, Ireland, and Mexico City, the huge metropolis that is the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world?

Have you wondered about the ways in which powerful artistic histories dating back to Celtic manuscript illumination and pre-Columbian ritual sculpture weigh heavily on, respectively, Irish and Mexican imagination today?

Or about how traditional Catholicism, once a principal artistic patron in Ireland and in Mexico, might play an unexpected role in shaping cultural perspectives in our modern secular art world?

Probably not. Ireland and Mexico would seem miles apart--not just geographically, separated as they are by thousands of miles of Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, but in countless other social and cultural ways.

Independent curator Trisha Ziff, however, has given a surprising amount of thought to these and other possible but rarely considered connections between Irish and Mexican culture. The quirky result is a book and traveling exhibition whose twinning of the two unlikely bedfellows generates a pleasing double-take. The show, with the wryly appropriate title, "Distant Relations," opened last week at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

If the assembled paintings, sculptures and mixed-media work doesn't quite pack an overall punch that matches the compelling oddity of the curatorial idea, the show is nonetheless refreshing. Original thinking is a rare enough commodity at any time; today, it has taken on a particular, high-voltage charge in the museum world, which so often seems stuck in the mud of crowd-pleasing banalities, on the one hand, or the tiresome repetition of established academic cant on the other.

You won't find much of either in "Distant Relations." Ziff has identified a variety of pointed yet unanticipated cultural parallels between the two modern nations. A reverence for ancient artistic traditions is one, while a common principle religion is another.

By themselves, however, parallels like these are not enough to establish a firm foundation on which to build a compelling exhibition. Obviously, lots of places could claim similar interests--Italy, say, or Spain.

More uniquely, and more important to the specific premise of the show, is the uneasy relationship between each of these two countries and its immediate and more powerful neighbor. Ireland and Mexico have long labored in the deep shadows cast by the towering supremacy of nearby England and the United States, respectively. And England and the U.S. are the two nations that virtually defined the shape and patterns of industrial revolution, on which the modern world was built.

Irish artist Philip Napier has contributed the most hauntingly beautiful work in the show--"Apparatus V" (1995)--and it resounds poetically against this difficult plight, with its ghostly and conflicted past. An old mechanical bus sign, the kind that spells out station names in clattering patterns of white or yellow dots against a black background, has been programmed with changing street names on an Irish bus line. The words flow back and forth between the Irish and English languages, like never-ending changes in the tides of time.

Slievemore, Hyde Park, Park Center, Crumlin--audio speakers flanking the bus sign broadcast a quiet, stuttering voice that struggles to read the ever-changing litany of place names, almost like a public eulogy or memorial for soldiers lost in distant battles. As the old-fashioned sign erases one name and replaces it with another, only to erase that and move on to the next, a cycle of domination and resistance, assertiveness and repression, relentlessly unfolds.

Napier's wall sculpture works its way under your skin in a way that Javier de la Garza's paintings, with their flat-footed illustrations describing the persistence of history at the expense of contemporary experience, or Alice Maher's, with their line drawings of ostensibly meaningful women's hairdos, can't seem to manage. (It doesn't help that Maher employs neutral colors and the graphic look of scientific schemas, in a manner familiar from Terry Winters' well-known paintings of the 1980s.)

Like De la Garza, Mexico's Silvia Gruner tackles pre-Columbian art as an immediately recognizable signifier for past glory, which inevitably limits the possibilities for contemporary movement into the future. But her photographs are disappointingly sketchy. I'm more curious to see the videotape from which the display of video stills apparently was taken.

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