Fixed Focus by Beth Shook: “Possible Worlds” at the Art Museum of the Americas

The Science + Fiction gallery at “Possible Worlds.” Photo by Beth Shook.

Mexican art has a complicated history with Surrealism. For decades, diverse bodies of work were pigeonholed with labels like “fantastic” and pointed to as evidence for some inherent “magical” or “marvelous” quality of the region. Thankfully, Possible Worlds: Photography and Fiction in Mexican Contemporary Art, the new exhibition at the Art Museum of the Americas, subverts such expectations by focusing on the universality of myth and imagined worlds.

The exhibition, which runs through August, is about challenging the limits of photography, and how a documentary medium can portray imagination much in the same way painting and sculpture do. Works by nine artists are organized thematically, with each of the museum’s five galleries assigned a theme: Fables + Myths, Science + Fiction, Erasure, Apocalypse and Ordinary Worlds. The structure allows the viewer to draw contrasts between individual artists while still recognizing their broader shared interests. Unfortunately, the classifications occasionally oversimplify the artists’ narratives and obscure some of the questions they raise. Katya Brailovsky’s grainy, high-contrast color prints of isolated characters may deal with the existential drama that the Science + Fiction wall text alludes to, but the link with the theme as a whole seems tenuous.

Continues (including this week’s openings and closings) after the jump.

The pictures on view run the gamut technically and in terms of subject matter, so it’s no wonder they’re difficult to categorize. Some of the worlds envisioned are scenes of destruction, decay and isolation, like Rubén Gutiérrez’ post-apocalyptic snapshots, slightly striated as if stills pulled from a hellish news broadcast. Daniela Edburg also addresses the end of the world — in two of her photographs, idyllic 1950s-era families picnic in a trance as nuclear mushroom clouds bloom in the distance. But in other images, Edburg envisions renewal and reconstruction. She casts modern-day hipsters as the protagonists of desolate landscapes accompanied by knitting yarn and needles or their own knit creations, like an absurdly long-sleeved bright orange sweater and a green and pink mat resembling a rosebush. Edburg almost challenges us to pick a future: destroy ourselves and our environment or commit to a more sustainable existence.

One of the most effective series is Ricardo Alzati’s Borraduras, or Erasures. Alzati has blown up black-and-white plates by Guillermo Kahlo, father of Frida Kahlo, who was commissioned in 1904 by Mexican president Porfirio Diaz to photograph architecture and landscapes in Mexico. By zooming in, Alzati brings to the forefront Kahlo’s mysterious editorial choices, like the deletion of certain individuals from urban settings. (The erasures are not easy to identify, but the clue seems to be a kind of crosshatching pattern that indicates hand coloring.) Alzati’s aim is to examine “the possible worlds fabricated by those who ruled and by those who worked creatively” under them. He also reminds us the extent to which photographic manipulation predates Photoshop.

An ethereal silence pervades the exhibition, thanks to the disturbingly tranquil, manipulated landscapes of Edburg, Kenia Nárez and Damián Siqueiros (the last two comprise the breathtaking Fables + Myths gallery). Curator Marisol Argüelles has chosen bodies of work that complement one another beautifully; some artists capture believable scenarios in impossible landscapes, while others, like Mauricio Alejo, stage uncanny moments that seem to defy the laws of physics but must, in fact, be real.

Argüelles positions the Mexican photographers as interlocutors within a global art dialogue, rather than the borders of Mexico. This is appropriate first because several of these artists have had transnational careers: according to the museum’s blog, Siqueiros lives in Montreal and has shown work throughout the Americas and Europe; Alejo got his Master’s at NYU in 2002; and Edburg was born in Houston and has participated in exhibitions around the world. Additionally, of the work on view at the AMA, only Alzati’s Erasures deal with a specifically Mexican subject.

That’s not to say that Possible Worlds isn’t relevant to Mexico. At the heart of the exhibition are questions about what kind of future awaits us. Such questions are pertinent not only for a world witnessing rapid shifts in its natural environment and cultural patterns, but also for a Mexico undergoing widespread social and economic change. The artists in this exhibition remind us of man’s ability to imagine alternatives and shape that future.

Possible Worlds was organized in collaboration with the Mexican Cultural Institute. It is on view at the Art Museum of the Americas until Aug. 28. Metro: Farragut West.

Openings: Ancient Iranian Ceramics at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; The Great American Hall of Wonders at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Closing: Moments in American Photography, 1850 to the Present at the Federal Reserve Board; Oreen Cohen: Running Drill at Transformer.

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