On the Drain in British Art: Sculpture in Mexico
by Bharat Azad
“Mexico is a surrealist country”, my host tells me in the living room of his Centro Historico apartment as we ponder over his collection of works by Alan Glass. I’m in Mexico City, taking in a tour of sorts of the intellectual history of this vast country. On a table, Birds of Paradise gently lilt half-asleep, their heads in calm repose, somehow recalling evening.
For much of the 20th Century, Mexico was a haven for many of the world’s most brilliant minds. Andre Breton came here in 1938, co-wrote the Surrealist manifesto with Leon Trotsky and declared Mexico “the most surrealist country in the world”. A small roll-call of others who took inspiration from living here reads like heaven’s most unruly dinner table: Glass himself, Thomas Pynchon, Octavio Paz, the fierce trio of Trotsky, Diego and Frida, Malcolm Lowry, Roberto Bolano and Hart Crane. Naturally, in a country fascinated with death, where there is even a patron saint of the narcotraficante, sitting quietly at the end of the table is the Devil, teetotal and chuckling to herself as she recalls a passage from Corinthians.
Even in the early 21st Century, a full eighty years after Breton, Mexico is still playing host to some of the world’s most promising artists. The country’s major art fair, the Zonamaco, took place earlier this month, bringing to town the formidable apparatus of the art world: gallerists, curators, alternate art fairs, critics, collectors, and, of course, artists themselves. Word is starting to spread about a comparable revival of the country’s reputation in the art world.
Of particular interest to me, a Brit, is ‘Synergia’, an exhibition at the Galería de Arte Mexicano (GAM) that runs until April displaying the works of eight British-trained sculptors: James Capper, Luke Hart, Pablo de Laborde Lascaris, Adeline de Monseignat, Manuel Muñoz G.G, Amy Stephens, Lucy Tomlins and Samuel Zealey. The opening was a success and seemed to hail a new generation of sculptors coming of age, experimenting with their chosen materials to explore the possibilities of sculpture.
I have followed the work of Capper, Hart and Zealey for some years and it’s extraordinary to see their new works on display together in this space, set across two rooms. Together with pieces by other artists I haven’t seen before, the exhibition is extraordinary: the first piece you see is Three scoops of rust by Pablo de Laborde Lascaris (who also helped organise and curate the exhibition), three brown bell-like structures composed of red travertine and steel. Pablo’s piece sets the tone for the exhibition, proud and mature in its strength but also thoughtful and engaging in its design and shape. Next is Zealey’s piece, Inverted Wing, a large dusty paper airplane-like construction of steel that stands stern and austere but with a similarly compelling gentleness.
Behind Zealey’s is Tumble Track 01 by Manuel Muñoz G.G – whose grandfather Ernesto Gomez Gallardo was one of Mexico’s most celebrated architects (the G. G. is Manuel’s homage to the great man) – is a magnificent large portal, as spare and strange as the Sonoran mines from which its material is sourced (“obsolete material”, Muñoz insists we call it). In the area between the two rooms is James Capper’s Mountaineer Tooth O, a clear nod to land art that continues the sculptor’s intense fascination with machinery (it’s worth checking out Capper’s other Mountaineer pieces to get a bigger sense of what his work is about).
In the second room, the poise of Adeline de Monseignat’s circular pieces, Demeter’s Pod, induces a quiet thrill, like seeing a prototype wheel made by Faberge. The effect is almost like that of an installation, as one viewer says to me. Luke Hart’s Chain-Link Twist II: Unrolled Cone is a triumph not just for sculpture but for Hart himself. The piece retains the muscularity of his previous creations – bridging the terrain between sculpture and structural engineering – whilst adding a softer, more melodic edge. It unfolds before you like a dream, train-tracks echoing out or like piano keys suspended mid-air in perfect symmetry.
Amy Stephens’s Urban Facade stands in the corner, perfectly placed and embracing the viewer in its elegance and beauty, a steel frame that intersects with a marble slab. Lucy Tomlins’s Angel mio provides the most traditional piece in the exhibition, a gentle parody of ancient marble sculpture.
There is something magnificent about the skill and maturity of these artists as well as the diversity on display here, from the ornate subtlety of de Monseignat and Stephens to the measured grandness of Zealey, Muñoz and Hart.
In speaking to most of the aritsts (time didn’t allow me to speak to them all), what strikes is their sophistication, not just of their craft but in their thought. The interesting conversations covered a wide amount of ground: from the influence of his grandfather on Muñoz, to the relationship of art and metaphor: – Zealey sees his work as metaphorical whereas Hart insists that sculpture is anti-metaphorical and presents to the viewer the thing-in-itself (in a sense that is more Heidegger than Kant) rather than the “lie” of metaphor. As for the connection with Surrealism, “we deal with putting raw ideas into reality”, Capper told me by email. “A dream made in reality is real”.
Synergia is a showcase for these talented British-trained artists but it may also be a dark herald of things to come: whispers of a drain of artists away from the UK to places like Mexico have been doing the rounds for a long time. Artists in Britain, like many professions, are subjected to intense financial and environmental pressures, mighty tectonic shifts of socio-economic plates that have been converging steadily to squeeze out what talent we have available. Nearly every artist I know has a horror story about soaring rents for living spaces and studios.
Consider Hart: an Anglo-American, raised in Chicago and trained in New York and London, who has called Hackney Wick his home for nearly a decade. He moved to Mexico City last summer after his studio space was sold by its prevous owner, and he hasn’t looked back. A growing number of artists want to follow his lead. If there is an art drain in the UK, Mexico may well be the beneficiary.
“London, like New York, has notoriously been a testing place for artists starting out”, Capper told me”. But, “it’s a testing time for the western world right now with politics, the economy and social philosophy”. Artists could soon turn “to CDMX [Mexico City] where the art community is refreshing and pushing the envelope of its ability into new unmapped territory with an air of freedom missing from our current lives”.
George Marsh concurs with Capper and Hart. Marsh is the owner of the William Bennington Gallery in London and has featured works by Capper and Hart as well as by de Monseignat and Stephens. I spoke to Marsh at Synergia and back in London. He admired Synergia greatly: “This is a group of artists skill-sharing and sharing facilities to make larger projects happen”, he told me. “Artists have to collectivise to a certain extent at this point”. He sees the exhibition as “possibly symptomatic of the situation in London where it’s becoming harder and less sustaintable for artists to maintain a practice”.
The crushing squeeze that astronomical rent prices place also extends to galleries such as Marsh’s. He talks about the “the fine line” he has to tread “between making it a sustainable business and doing interesting projects”. In the current economic climate, Marsh is having to “think differently about space”.
With the idea of taking on a premium space in the centry of town being “little more than vanity at this stage…we would all be better off spending that sort of money by investing directly in our artists and helping to fund interesting one-off projects and artworks. Marsh’s aim is to get the gallery’s costs down as low as possible to enable him to support interesting programs. “Part of that is the idea of helping find studios or new ways of working for artists in this city or elsewhere”, he says.
“Elsewhere”. Like, perhaps, Mexico? Marsh concedes he has been working on ideas to, for instance, get artists to swap studios between cities.
The timing is certainly opportune. Not only are many artists gathering around Mexico but one of the sculptors at Synergia, Pable de Laborde Lascaris, is in the process of converting a building into a space for artists’ studios close to the centre of town. As Hart said to me, on a walk through Centro Historico, he has always wanted to live in the centre of a big city. Where else would he be able to afford to do that and still continue to do his work?
There is a definite sense of a scene building and the omens are certainly there: the Galería de Arte Mexicano was one of the early adopters of Surrealism and displayed an exhibition organised by Breton in 1940. The country’s hypnotic hold on artists may be working its magic again. But, as Zhou Enlai would have said: too early to tell.
Postscript: On the connection between Mexico and Surrealism; or: Consider the organillo
Consider the organillo.
The organillo are music boxes, quaint in design, piping out forgotten favourites that were all the rage around the end of the 19th century, the period when they were brought in to the country from Germany. They are heard throughout the city centre, played by organillero, who rent them at quite some cost. What strikes the ear is the very obvious fact that the boxes have, over such a long period of time, gone out of tune, their now disjointed notes recalling a child’s anxiety dream set inside a circus.
After a couple of days spent walking and catching snatches of the music, the visitor may be inclined to ask whether it has occured to the organillero to maybe tune these glorious boxes, please? Si. But for certain organ models, I am told, the German factories which created them closed down a long time ago, leaving us without the tuning know-how. And if there is someone knowledgeable enough to tune them, the cost would probably swallow up the best part of a day’s wages of the organillero.
And so we are stuck, delightfully, with the slow high-pitched madness of these 19th century German organs, constantly piercing our reveries in the city centre.
‘Synergia’ is on display at the Galeria de Arte Mexicano – Gobernador Rafael Rebollar 43 San Miguel Chapultepec I Secc 11850 Ciudad de México CDMX – until the end of April. For those who can’t make it, a YouTube video has handily popped.
About the Author:
Bharat Azad is an occasional writer based in London with a very wide range of interests including a love for Proust, Manchester United and scouring Google for ‘good hip hop nights’.