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Mixing Mexico's myths

Cultural traditionalist or stylistic anarchist? Daniel Lezama answers to both.

June 29, 2008|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Which adjective best fits the work of painter Daniel Lezama?

Alluring? Repellent? Classical? Irreverent? Misunderstood?

While critics extol his daring and originality, Lezama, 40, makes certain gallery owners squeamish and collectors nervous. His typically large-scale works are imposing in their size and complexity, startling in their frank depictions of frequently nude, mainly working-class Mexicans (including children) engaged in activities that are simultaneously violent and sordid, touching and tender.

Like fever dreams, Lezama's neo-baroque paintings rope together seemingly unrelated elements. Chiaroscuro lighting and other Old Master influences dignify tragi-comic tableaux of inebriated peasants and Indian prostitutes. In one of Lezama's mock-heroic compositions, the pop singer Juan Gabriel has the noble bearing of a Roman senator, despite being surrounded by a semi-circle of naked women with the letters M-E-X-I-C-O painted across their bellies. Majestic landscapes are made unsettlingly humorous by the unexpected presence of a cheesy corporate logo, a band of strolling mariachis.

Once, according to Lezama, a top collector here dismissed the idea of buying Lezama's paintings with a single word: "Never!" The artist's laconic reply: "For me, it's a favorable statement."

Hate him or love him, Lezama is hot. His work is selling briskly, and he's being honored through the end of June with a large solo retrospective, "La madre prodiga" (The Prodigal Mother), at the Museum of Mexico City, a couple of blocks from the capital's Zocalo.

"The Zocalo and the center of Mexico is a place with an energy and magnetism. It's a privilege to be here," Lezama says in Spanish while strolling the museum galleries.

What he especially likes about the venue, a venerable Spanish-colonial building, is that it attracts not only art mavens but also the curious drifting in off the street. "The specialized public knows my work, has a relation with it and knows it well. But I'm interested in the general public, and this is the first time I have that opportunity."

Burly and gregarious, Lezama spews out ideas and opinions like an AK-47 with a stuck trigger. The offspring of a Mexican artist father and a Texas mother who split up when he was a child, he grew up on both sides of the border and also spent a few years in Paris.

He's a vintage-car nut, with a fleet that includes an Impala, a Chevy Nova, a Rambler Classic, a '54 Cadillac and a '46 Buick. "The spirit of the United States for me is the spirit of the road," he says. "The road movie, the road trip, displacement. . . . Because this is the construction of U.S. identity. You're constructed by leaving behind your past in order to construct your future."

If he weren't a painter (trained at the National School of Fine Arts), he reckons he'd be a mechanic. "I like mechanics, the sensation of certainty, that if you do it right, it will function."

Not surprisingly, given his polyglot, multicultural upbringing, Lezama likes to mix styles and genres in his art and to interweave high art and pop culture. "I like genres in order to break them and transform them lightly." He's equally admiring of Rubens' mythological paintings and vampire western movies.

He also believes that great art aspires to the global by focusing on the local. "We consider that Goya is universal," he says. "But in the 18th century, they said that he was the most Spanish type of artist in the world."

Stylistically and thematically, Lezama's art straddles several eras, making some observers regard him as a backward-looking figurative painter, others as a contemporary iconoclast. In truth, he's a thoroughly modern anti-modernist, or as Erick Castillo, curator of "La madre prodiga," has described him, a "traditionalist heretic working for the nocturnal legacy of the Mexican unconsciousness."

"His art, on the one hand it's very logical, on the other it's very uncommon," says Castillo. "Many people in the debate think that Daniel is a traditionalist painter, that he is a painter mexicanista."

Lezama is among a handful of Mexico's best-known young and middle-age contemporary artists, a group that includes Gabriel Orozco and the expats Melanie Smith and Francis Alys. His work has been shown both internationally and in some of Mexico's most important venues, and it addresses some of the most fundamental aspects of Mexican identity and history.

Partly because of this prominence, he has been criticized by some Mexicans who don't like seeing their country depicted in what they regard as a harsh critical light. Others claim to have been left speechless, such as a critic for the Mexico City daily El Universal who wrote of "La madre prodiga" that "It seduced me, and it terrorized me. It left me feeling incapable of writing about his work." (She went on to praise the show copiously.)

Complex themes

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