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Mexico art fair grows from nothing fast

April 29, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — MACO: Mexico Arte Contemporaneo is not Art Basel Miami Beach, the ultimate, gotta-be-there contemporary art marketplace, but it has shot up from nowhere in three years flat. At the peak of Wednesday night's opening reception -- a couple of hours after Mexican first lady Marta Sahagun de Fox had launched the fair with a speech and ceremonial tour -- the Expo Reforma convention center turned into a stage for an art world performance with a cast of thousands.

In this city's version of the annual contemporary art fairs that have proliferated as dealers have tried to broaden their clienteles and cash in on aficionados who travel the world in search of the next big thing, a stream of collectors, curators, critics, artists and curious newcomers flowed into the big white chunk of a building just off the central section of Paseo de la Reforma. After passing through bag checks and metal detectors, they glided up escalators and crammed into elevators to see art provided by 73 galleries from 15 countries, installed on five of the building's eight floors for the five-day event, which continues through Sunday.

Dealers from Mexico, South America, Europe and the United States -- including five from Los Angeles -- displayed paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, mixed-media installations, videos and photographs. Projectos Monclova, which has been in business all of 10 months in Mexico City and works with very young artists, had a high-energy wall of drawings on scrappy notebook paper by Mexican artist Marco Rountree. In Situ, established seven years ago in Paris, offered "Department of Tropical Research," an installation by New York artist Mark Dion that included expedition and camping gear laid out on a big yellow tarp. The Happy Lion, one of L.A.'s edgy Chinatown galleries, stopped traffic with "Misfit," a taxidermy sculpture by Thomas Grunfeld merging a parrot's head with a ferret's body.

On the top level of the building, a young crowd milled around booths occupied by up-and-coming galleries and art magazine publishers. Stylish twentysomethings and parents with kids in strollers perused magically delicate figurative drawings by L.A.'s Ruby Osorio and multicolored plastic sculptures of mushroom clouds by Rocio Infestas, of Mexico. Female celebrities with drop-dead figures and outfits to match -- notably Mexican actress and singer Paulina Rubio -- strolled around and talked on cellphones, attracting furtive glances from people who came to see art but couldn't resist the human spectacle.

Lower floors offered more spacious displays of art for almost everyone, including impeccably crafted abstract paintings by late Mexican modernist Gunther Gerzso and a dizzying wall piece made of dominos by Brazilian artist Jose Patricio. Artists Angel Rios and Ariel Orozco, who left Cuba for Mexico City, explored domestic themes in attention-getting pieces. Rios fashioned a huge lamp-sculpture with a wood frame surrounding an illuminated view of a slum-covered hillside; Orozco designed a bed that mimics his favorite sleeping position.

Visitors whose feet gave out before their eyes did could relax in an ersatz living room and leaf through exhibition catalogs, courtesy of Eugenio Lopez's Jumex Collection, a major international holding of contemporary art housed in a huge space on the north side of Mexico City. For those who wanted to catch up with the city's burgeoning contemporary art scene, there was a program of gallery openings and visits to private collections.

None of this adds up to a major international event for contemporary art sophisticates. But Samuel Keller, director of the much larger Art Basel Miami Beach, showed up at MACO on opening night, along with many of his peers. When Keller was ready to leave he couldn't find his car and driver in the massive traffic jam surrounding Expo Reforma, but he cheerfully proclaimed MACO "the best contemporary art fair in Latin America," adding that it has a way to go to reach its potential.

For MACO director Zelika Garcia, getting better doesn't mean getting as big as the Miami event, which will bring 195 galleries to Florida in December. The Mexico City fair has grown from 43 participants to 53 last year and 73 this year. She can envision pushing it up to 90 or 100 galleries, but that's it.

"I never wanted it to be too big," she said, settling into a chair in the press room. "We can improve the quality, but having 200 or 300 galleries would be kind of crazy."

The point, she said, is "not to copy others but to have a fair for Mexico, in the middle of the city."

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