GLAZED AND CONFUSED

But in typical, ever-accommodating Mexican fashion, new patterns, themes and physical forms, created in response to current fashion, are filling the void along with traditional ones.

Now, you're likely to see fruit piled in casual arrangements and fish swimming through foliage in eye-catching combinations of blue, green, rust and yellow on everything from platters to flowerpots. Tropical fruit like papaya, pineapple, watermelon, mango, pomegranate and bananas, and sugar cane spill over every inch of surface. Such fruit subjects were popularized in 19th-century still-life paintings by Jose Augustin Arrieta. Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to make frequent appearances to the faithful via tile murals and plates. And forms truly alien to colonial Mexico, like tissue box covers, picture frames, bathroom sinks, chicken- and frog-shaped planters, and soap dishes that look more like oversize tea infusers, fill the groaning shelves of small shops devoted solely to talavera.

According to Milou de Reisset, owner of Quatro Vientos, a chic antique and design shop in San Miguel de Allende featured in Casas y Gente, Mexico's answer to Architectural Digest, she's the one responsible for the old Italian patterns now appearing on talavera made in Dolores.

"I took a book with pictures of old Italian majolica to a potter there. That's why you're seeing pieces featuring the Holy Family, ladies with lyres in flowing gowns and figures in 15th-century Italian costumes," says de Reisset. "Of course, I can't control the way they are painted, but that's the real part of their charm."

And, like it or not, you'll see Mexican versions of Van Gogh sunflowers, art deco lilies, moon-and-star patterns typical of the neomedieval designs presently in vogue and strange cubist takeoffs on early Picasso. Some of Dolores' output is downright kitschy, like enormous vases proudly displaying figures of a suffering Christ crowned with thorns, or Pope John Paul II. I even spotted a plate with Frida Kahlo's face on it, complete with her signature black upper-lip fuzz.

But maybe that's why I am so addicted to Mexican folk art, with its unique ability to assimilate even the most foreign or commonplace elements and make those elements an intimate part of its distinctive vision. Not unlike its amazing people, Mexico produces a folk art that embraces and uses--to its ultimate advantage--even its most intrusive invaders.

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