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Conflict resolution

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Opposing forces seem locked in struggle in Demian Flores Cortes' work, but look again. He's establishing a dialogue.

February 19, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Mexico City — IN Demian Flores Cortes' hometown of Juchitan, in southern Mexico, women hold most of the economic and social power. In his adopted home of Mexico City, machismo still rules.

In Juchitan (pronounced hoo-chee-TAHN), the favorite sport is baseball. Here in the nation's capital, it's soccer.

In Juchitan, many natives still converse in the indigenous Zapotec tongue and commune with ancient pre-Hispanic gods. In Mexico City, the populace genuflects before the deities of television, movies and advertising and bristles at the invasion of globalized gringo-speak even as it apes the latest Hollywood slang, fashions and attitudes.

Such a mishmash heritage might seem a recipe for a severe case of cultural schizophrenia. But Flores has been absorbing these types of contradictions since adolescence.

In doing so, he has developed an artistic sensibility that moves fluidly between pre-Hispanic and modern, rural and urban, indigenous cosmology and Madison Avenue, Mexican culture and what Mexicans refer to as "North American" culture -- north, that is, of the Rio Grande. While many contemporary Mexican artists grapple with that nebulous abstraction known as "the border," in Flores' vision \o7la frontera \f7can be practically anywhere outside Juchitan, which for him constitutes a world unto itself.

"For me, the frontier is a line that one crosses imaginatively," says Flores, showing visitors around his art-studded home at the far southern end of the capital and talking with his customary quick cadences. "And for me, Juchitan is a species of frontier. So I am trying to find or to start dialogues between this, on the one side, indigenous Juchiteca and all the rest of the world, which could be Mexico City or anywhere else."

Feeling at home in more than one aesthetic universe at the same time is a trademark of both Flores' life and his art. Born in Juchitan in 1971 but partly raised in Mexico City, where his family moved when he was a teenager, Flores assimilated both the centuries-old Zapotec culture and the modern pop culture of the Chilangos, as Mexico City residents are known. Flores likes to refer to himself as a "Juchilango," a term that echoes the Mexican concept of \o7mestizaje\f7, or "mixed race" -- the blending of disparate elements and identities to form a new people or new culture. The quality of \o7mestizaje \f7is present throughout Flores' growing body of prints, paintings and installations, which incorporate imagery from ancient Mesoamerican codices as readily as they do comic books and corporate advertising.

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Resistance and conquest

FLORES' cultural duality reverberates in the punning title of his current solo exhibition, "MATCH dual presence," as well as in the show's remarkable double venue. "MATCH dual presence" is being presented simultaneously, in halves as it were, in the Hertha and Walter Klinger Gallery at the USC Fisher Gallery and in the Sala de Arte at the University of Baja California in Tijuana. It runs through April 15.

With its connotations of sporting contests and other forms of combat, "MATCH dual presence" hints at the key concepts of struggle, conquest and resistance that animate Flores' work. Drawing visual and thematic analogies between ancient Zapotec ballgames and American baseball, Indian warriors and modern Mexican \o7lucha libre\f7 wrestlers, Flores' art frequently expresses his multilayered ideas about aesthetic and cultural conflict.

Mexico's history, like that of many countries, is one of violent collisions between competing value systems, and Flores' worldview is steeped in this history. His works can be seen as boisterous market squares for the bartering of ideas or as athletic fields or gladiatorial arenas where wildly varying elements are given license to tussle and brawl.

In his "Novena" paintings series (2003), parts of which are on view at USC, baseball players with grotesquely swollen heads and elongated arms seem to be acting out some dark, primal ritual that has little to do with Crackerjack or a seventh-inning stretch. This feeling, both queasy and comic, is enhanced by an accompanying series of beautifully made wooden baseball bats, absurdly sculpted to look like a cross between a Dadaist "readymade" (as the critic Victor Zamudio-Taylor has noted) and a medieval torture instrument.

In a related series, baseball caps are inscribed with enigmatic Spanish words and phrases, a la Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger: "The Greatest Tragedies Are Written With 2 Outs," "The Generations Pass and the Idols Fall," "Maybes Don't Exist in Baseball." Flores' obsession with baseball and his way of combining drawings with cryptic aphorisms also bring to mind L.A. artist Raymond Pettibon, whose work he admires.

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