BEYOND THE BLACK VELVET CANVAS

Given the recent increase of ugly--and often violent--anti-Mexican sentiment in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement, it took a lot of huevos for Scottsdale Center for the Arts to mount "Cruzando Fronteras/Crossing Borders." The center should be saluted for its brave farsightedness in exhibiting what has turned out to be a cutting-edge undertaking. "Crossing Borders" is a project that aesthetically explores the unique cross-fertilization of two distinct cultures that often butt heads. The result of Mexican and American mating is a border culture pulsating with its own life along an artificial dividing line that only came into existence in 1848. Before that date, let's not forget, the American Southwest was a part of Mexico. The art in "Crossing Borders" is as diverse in approach and attitude as the 1,952-mile stretch of terrain that theoretically separates the two countries. It includes work by painters, sculptors, photographers, performance artists, writers and filmmakers along both sides of this vast expanse. At the hub of the project is "La Frontera/The Border," an exhibit born of the collaboration of the small, privately funded Centro Cultural de la Raza of San Diego and that city's publicly supported Museum of Contemporary Arts--a cooperative feat of no mean proportion in and of itself. "La Frontera" is at its best when it rises above rhetoric and probes universal human issues that transcend factional politics. Carmen Amato's dignified, black-and-white photographs of a woman crossing the Rio Grande in a rickety pontoon, shoveling trash as a sanitation worker and fixing the engine of a truck bigger than she is speak of the disintegration of the family, a strong tradition in Mexico, and of the changing roles Mexican women have been forced to assume at the El Paso/Ciudad Ju rez border. Texas artist Celia Mu¤oz's poignant, mixed-media piece "Which Came First, Enlightenment Series #4" deals with the often torturous and embarrassing experience of learning English grammar. "Mestizaje I," a sculptural installation made of headless cast torsos covered with charred cornhusks by Arizona-born Patricia Ruiz Bayon, is evocative of the Mayan myth that man is made of corn, a staple of life in Mexico. Ensenada-based Estela Hussong's muted canvas "Ruinas, pescados y choyas" relies on the rugged Baja coast for both its subject matter and its restrained palette.

"La Frontera" showcases a number of artists who have been involved in the Border Arts Workshop/El Taller de Arte Fronterizo (BAW/TAF for short); this rough-and-tumble group of politically active Chicano, Anglo and Mexican artists, including at one point Victor Ochoa, David Avalos and Guillermo G¢mez-Pe¤a, was responsible for the creation of a real aesthetic along the San Diego/Tijuana border beginning in the mid-1980s. Much to the chagrin of the U.S. Border Patrol, which would often unwittingly get front-row seats, BAW/TAF would stage galling performance pieces aimed at exposing human rights violations and racist activity occurring at the border--right on the sandy beach where the two countries meet.

Of course, humor seduces when nothing else can. Victor Ochoa's revamped loteria cards lampoon stereotypical border characters such as "El Surf" and "El Marine" (tourist types who plague the entire length of the Baja peninsula), "La Migra" (Mexican slang for the border patrol) and "La Criada" (the archetypal Mexican cleaning lady). And "Ramona: Birth of mis.ce.ge.NATION," a multimedia installation by David Avalos, William Franco, Miki Seifert and Deborah Small, still makes me snort, even after seeing it for the fifth time. Avalos first gained notoriety for his San Diego donkey-cart caper back in December 1985, when, with the permission of the General Services Administration, he placed a replica of one of Tijuana's typical tourist carts in front of San Diego's federal courthouse. Instead of featuring the usual Aztec warrior clutching the usual fainting Aztec princess, Avalos' cart sported a picture of a border-patrol cop arresting an undocumented Mexican worker. U.S. District Court Judge Gordon Thompson ordered the cart removed for nebulous security reasons.

But for me, the real stars of SCA's "Crossing Borders" project are two concurrent satellite shows, "Alfred J. Quir¢z: Hystorical Narratives" and "The Temple of Confessions," a performance/installation by Guillermo G¢mez-Pe¤a and Roberto Sifuentes. Quir¢z's show is sequestered behind freestanding walls, with appropriate warning signs as to content, so that small children and those who are prone to the vapors might be spared its vitriolic and often gruesome content. I saw two perfectly coifed ladies walk out of the show, uttering, "Yecch, gross." But then again, ladies, history is sometimes very gross.

Born and raised in Tucson, where he is currently a professor of art at the University of Arizona, Quir¢z takes a razor-sharp look at, among other momentous events, the discovery of America by Columbus (the father of genocide and ruler of greed and ignorance," to quote Quir¢z) and the Spanish conquest of Mexico. And after looking at his work, there's no question as to how the artist really feels about these historical episodes. Quir¢z's cartoony canvases may look like a raucous cross between Red Grooms and Mad magazine, but they have a serious, punch-to-the-gut quality more characteristic of German Expressionists Otto Dix and Georg Grosz, whose savage wit was often leveled at German fascism.

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