East City Art Reviews: Underlying Borders at the Mexican Cultural Institute of Washington DC

By Elsabé Johnson Dixon on May 21, 2019

Underlying Borders, an exhibition featuring the work of five artists addressing immigration and migration, is on view at the Mexican Cultural Institute (4th floor) through May. Artists Alison Lee Schroeder and Gerardo Camargo were invited to curate the exhibit. Their intent was to select artists whose work manifests the psychological and metaphorical impact of borders.

In addition to Schroeder and Carmargo, participating artists Felipe Baeza, Marela Zacarias and Irene Clouthier explore identity, gender and nationality as they relate to geographical distances and the sense that one’s body and memory can become zones of transition. These artists have all had a migrant or immigration experience between Mexico and the United States. Underlying Borders does not necessarily address the “land border,” Schroeder explained during an artist talk on International Sculpture Day, but instead aims to address the psychological impact of living between two places. [1]

Gerardo Camargo, You Can’t Be Hungry in the Land of the Free, Mixed media installation with aluminum trays, remains of Latin food (Salvadorian pupusas, Peruvian chicken, Mexican tacos, Guatemalan tamales), false marble column, 2017. Courtesy of the Artist.

An eclectic mix of sculpture, prints and mixed media installation work fills three gallery spaces. The entrance shows Gerardo Camargo’s totem structure made of aluminum food containers poised on a classical black marble pedestal: You Cannot Be Hungry In the Land of the Free, 2017. Recalling everyday culinary objects as talisman or fetish, it holds a material history of communal eating (and building). “Architecture reflects conditions of society,” says Camargo. While this might not reference Latin American culture groups specifically, it does attest to a social interaction and how “labor” can be a transformative power.

Domestic labor and activities are the themes in the adjacent gallery. Here the viewer may be shifted off balance by the work of three very different artists in the same space: Alison Lee Schroeder’s fiber installation Home is Where the Heart Is, 2019, and her sound installation Mental Sound Tract, 2017; Felipe Baeza’s dark ink on egg tempera panel, Avistamiento Fantasmagorico I, 2018, and Marela Zacarias large but light colored pastel relief sculpture, Thunderbird (1/2), 2018. Each seeks to express the theme in a compellingly different manner.

Alison Lee Schroeder, Home is Where The Heart Is, Mixed media embroidery sculpture, 2019. Courtesy of Artist.

Schroeder’s work takes on a dialogue of longing and nostalgia. Her musical altered sound collage of three songs: Mexico (James Taylor), South of the Border (Frank Sinatra) and Mexico by the band CAKE, imparts a sense of fragmented reality. A “fantasy” vinyl record series with narrative covers and imagined reviews, depict titles such as 17.4%, La Gringa de Iguaque – Where am I & where do I come from? . Home is Where the Heart Is, 2019, on the adjacent wall, consists of two embroidery hoops hung parallel to each other with embroidery thread running between them. These represent the artist’s two homes in two different places. The American Colonial style cross-stitch holds an image of Schroeder’s childhood home in Bethesda, Maryland, with its straight lines and tidy grass lawn. The other shows her mother in-law’s sprawling architecturally eclectic house in Temixco, Morelos, and is embroidered with faster, expressive, traditional Mexican stitching. This house, Schroeder affectionately says: “is like a beautiful noise that is prevalent in Mexico[1].” Some threads just dangle -showing things that fail to cross over, Schroeder says. Realities stretch between two physical places like the embroidery thread. While Schroeder’s work dominates this gallery, Felipe Baeza’s Avistamiento Fantasmagórico, 2018, hangs darkly powerful but isolated and Marela Zacarias’ cheerful, large billowing cloud of flowing fabric Thunderbird (1/2), 2018 seems to have nothing in common with Schroeder’s work at first glance.

Irene Clouthier, The Others Look, 2008-2019, C-Print, Acrylic Fishbowl, Plastic Beats, and Wiggle Eyes, Photograph by Daniel Troconis.

Things come together more succinctly in the second gallery. Irene Clouthier’s work The Others Look, 2008-2019, is installed on one wall; Tomo Todo (I Take Everything), 2010, sits in a vitrine in one corner, and two C-Prints on Plexiglas of a laundromat sign on Route 50 in DC photographed 8 years apart – $1.99, 2010 and $2.29, 2018, hang on an adjacent wall. These latter are multilayered digital manipulations documenting “slow” urban changes. On the opposite wall are a series of small dark oil and glitter prints and a larger stitched paper collage of a sleeping figure. This is Avistamiento Fantasmagórico I, 2018, by Baeza. Hanging dead center from a chain attached to the ceiling is a black Detroit tire affectionately “cuddled” by Zacarias’ billowing fabric cloud; Cihuacoatl (snake Woman), 2018

Marela Zacarias, Cihuacoatl (Snake Woman), Acrylic on plaster, wire mesh, Detroit tire, 2018

As the viewer moves around Cihuacoatl (Snake Woman) behind it are either the dark prints of Baeza or the light colorful works by Clauthier. One gets a view of light and a view of dark, seen in the same space depending on where you place your body in the room while moving around Zacarias’ centerpiece. 

Felipe Baeza’s work concentrates on the human body as a manifestation of the transitional zone. His meticulously layered oil prints hold Chine Collé surfaces of glittered body parts (arms) that mysteriously float above the matte surface of the ink prints. As a DACA recipient, born in 1987, and working in New York City, Baeza, in spite of a Yale education, cannot travel freely, nor does he have the certainty of being able to remain in the United States. Ahuehete Dormino, 2017, shows a naked brown male figure stretched out sleeping amongs green plant stems and white flowers embroidered in the background. This could reference undocumented immigrants crossing the border sleeping hidden between the plants. Baeza clearly references Henri Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy, 1897, in which a similar reclining figure occupies a fantasy world of dreams with a lion sniffing his shoulder. The work may also allude to a critical encounter and the uneasiness when a person’s vulnerable subconscious self gets disturbed during slumber.

Felipe Baeza, Ahuehuete Dormido
Ink, watercolor, charcoal, collage, cut paper, egg tempera, hand embroidery, interference powder on paper, 2017. Courtesy of the Artist.

Although Baeza’s oil and glitter prints from a 2017 series on paper and his Ahuehuete Domino are dark, Clauthier’s works are light. Her father owned a plastic injection mold factory in Culiacan, Mexico, and she recalls visiting the factory and being fascinated by melted residues from the injection mold that fell on the floor, where they cooled and solidified. She would incorporate these into her world of toys. Imagination is a powerful tool, which allows one to think outside of one’s own reality – creating happiness for short periods of time.

Gerardo Camargo, The Earth is Trembling a Little Tiny Bit Mixed media installation with video, audio, metal shelving units, glass jars, electric motor, lighting, 2019. Courtesy of the Artist.

Before passing into the next gallery, one has to walk through Camargo’s multimedia installation Està Temblando un Poquitito (The Earth is Trembling a Little Bit), 2019. The title derives from the words of a reporter just before an 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico City at 07:17:50 on the morning of September 19, 1985, killing over five thousand people. . During the artists’ talk on International Sculpture Day, Camargo recalled being present in Mexico City as a child during this earthquake, and seeing the buildings moving and swaying like something liquid and soft, looking like ocean waves. He says the concept of identity is similar – moving from one place to another shakes ones core – and the shifting reality of two different places makes one question all reality. Metal shelving units with empty bottles that once contained precious food imported from the “homeland,” now flashes blue, red and white lights. A mixed soundtrack-collage of a helicopter’s rotating blades, a news commentator’s voice, and a heartbeat plays amidst video images of a baseball rolling across a wooden deck, a small helicopter hovering above a scene. Camargo said this 1985 event was a watershed that catapulted him into his first migration experience when he moved 60 miles outside of Mexico city after the earthquake, to be frowned upon as “the other,” in his own country.

Marela Zacarias, South Wall. Acrylic on plaster, wire mesh, mirror, Detroit window, 2018

Marela Zacarias’ enwrapped sculptural forms, simulating fabric piles and draped shapes, are dispersed throughout the exhibition between the smaller works of the other artists exhibiting. In the last gallery, as in the other two galleries her works act as visual signs that emphasize plasticity and psychological notions of cover and protection. The last gallery grouping is experienced as moments of self-awareness. Zacarias large fabrics enwrap a mirror and the mirror reveals the observer just as Clouthier’s Others Look, 2008-2019 does. While preparing for a series of sculpture-murals Zacarias created for Wasserman Projects she studied Diego Rivera’s industrial murals at the Detroit Institute of Art. In response, she started applying Rivera’s decorative Aztec trim used in his Detroit mural, to wet plaster forms – like fresco – which she draped over her discarded Detroit rubber tire armatures. The designs on her forms echo the Aztec myth of Coatlicue, the Earth/Mother goddess of both Creation and Destruction. Things concrete (borders), are represented physically and psychologically as fluid (soft fabric) caught in a moment before they move and change. This narrative carries over to other works in the last gallery.

Alison Lee Schroeder, True Expressions. Archival pigment prints 2018

Schroeder’s series of two photographs shows herself and her husband Camargo sitting in two different spaces. While they wear masks of their own faces, their underlying body language is fluid and “normal.” This photographic series is juxtaposed with Zacarias’ draped mirror and there seems to be a curatorial reference to the Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz, who wrote specifically about the Mexican identity in a poem called “The Mirror” (1930 ) which indicates the connection between the mirror and the mask.[2]

From one mask to the other

There is always a penultimate “I” that questions.

I hide myself in myself and I do not touch myself.

Another work by Camargo, Implications of the form (Violent Structures), 2019 is a mantel underlining a beautifully drafted drawing of straight shapes turned to fluid curves. The side molding shape holds the silhouette of a gun – a reminder of violence as ever present. This last gallery closes the visual narrative present in all the galleries of Underlying Borders, connecting to the deeper tradition of Mexican story telling seen in the traditional Cueva del Rio murals (1933), along the staircase at the Mexican Cultural Institute. Underlying Borders addresses contemporary narratives of nostalgia, the darkness of depression and the lightness of disposable dreams and hopes. These stories sway the viewer’s perception of borders just as an earthquake cuts across a landscape making buildings sway in a dance of chance.

The exhibition is on view from March 14 through June 1, 2019, at The Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th Street NW, Washington DC, 20009.

[1] Artists’ Talk, International Sculpture Day, April 27, 2019, Mexican Cultural Institute, Washington, DC

[2] Artist Talk, International Sculpture Day, April 27, 2019, Mexican Cultural Institute, Washington, DC.

[3] Linda B. Hall, “Masks and Mirrors: Octavio Paz’s Search for Mexican Identity,” Southwest Review, Vol. 57, No 2(spring1972), pp. 89-97