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Sculptor Holds a Mirror Up to His Mexico

Art * With 'Oro por Espejos,' Marcos Ramirez wants to help countrymen 'get rid of our complexes and hang-ups.'


Mexican sculptor Marcos Ramirez has never been afraid to confront shameful little secrets or reveal hypocrisy. Take his 1997 sculpture of a 33-foot, two-headed Trojan horse on the border of San Ysidro and Tijuana, which seemed to ask the question: "Who is invading whom?" Or his statement on the U.S.' immigration policies through a unique tribute to Jasper Johns' American flag series--reimagining the Stars and Stripes as a corrugated metal fence on the border.

Ramirez is one artist who lives and breathes the political.

"I want my work to be universally visual," he said on a recent visit to Los Angeles from his home in Tijuana. "I may speak of local issues, but they are universal issues. I am not a border artist. The work I make has to do with cultural frontiers."

And now it is time to turn his satirical, incisive eye to his homeland. The 35-year-old artist's stinging critique of Mexico and its countrymen is on display in "Oro por Espejos" (Gold for Mirrors), which opened Friday at the Iturralde Gallery. The exhibition, which features three massive carved wooden sculptures, one large iron cross, some paintings and installations, inaugurates the gallery's new, larger space.

Ramirez tried to address the three eras of Mexican culture that continue to cause a tremendous national identity crisis: the pre-Columbian, the Colonial and the contemporary.

"I had to have the guts to make a critique of my own country," said Ramirez, who also goes by "Erre"--the Spanish pronunciation of the letter R. "The essence of this exhibit is recovering the pride of who we were and then dealing with the Spanish past. It's like a cathartic thing. We shouldn't forget our past, but we need to get rid of our complexes and hang-ups so Mexico can be a better country."

Ramirez is a child of the border, raised in a bicultural world where he visited Los Angeles more often than his own country's capital city. His parents moved from Guadalajara to the border with hopes of crossing into the United States. They eventually did, but when Ramirez's mother was about to give birth, they returned so he could be born a Mexican national.

It was a frontier existence he led, with half of his family in the U.S. and his siblings and parents in Mexico.

His journey to becoming an artist is also a peculiarly Mexican border tale. When he graduated from college with a law degree in the early '80s, Mexico's economy suffered one of the most calamitous peso devaluations in history. It threw the country into economic turmoil.

Ramirez could not find a job. So he came across the border illegally. He slept in his car and eventually found work as a construction worker. Within a few years, he became a legal resident and started a construction business. Although he never studied art, Ramirez showed a creative side, always sketching and drawing from the time he was a child. Even when he went into construction, he would plan ways of creating art with the skills he learned as a carpenter and laborer. With his proceeds, he would purchase materials to make art.

Virtually unknown, Ramirez was invited to create a piece for "inSITE94," the big binational show that features installation art in Tijuana and San Diego. His work, "Century 21," was a one-room shanty placed on the plaza of Tijuana's Centro Cultural. In his review of the show, Times art critic Christopher Knight said it was art "of a particularly devastating sort. . . . Ramirez has counterposed the grand plaza of an officially sanctioned centro cultural with a stark example of the actual cultural center of the city's teeming life."

It turned out to be one of the most critically well-received pieces of the show. Based on this success, Ramirez was invited back for "inSITE97," co-organized by Mexico's influential National Council for Culture and the Arts.

One day, while waiting in line at the hellacious border crossing, Ramirez was thunderstruck by an idea: What if he built an enormous sculpture here? What if everyone who drove back and forth, waiting hours in that line under the hot, dusty sun, could be prompted to think about the foolishness of these man-made borders?

So, he built his now-famous Trojan horse for "inSITE97." It is estimated that nearly 13 million people saw his work of art as they drove across the country lines. The horse seemed to say that the invasion is a two-way street.

"They invade us with imperialism and commercialism," he said. "We invade them, like Carlos Fuentes said, chromosomally, with people. We make them eat tacos instead of hamburgers."

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