Tijuana Brash

The de la Torre brothers' glass is full of frontera kitsch

Fundamentalist Christianity gets dragged into the glare of the spotlight in WWJD?, a tribute to a popular Jesus-freak bumper sticker that stands for "What would Jesus do?" The infamous initials appear atop a tuck-and-roll silver vinyl pillow on which a stylized nude torso, complete with perky glass breasts and genitalia, writhes seductively. And the trinity of the Marlboro Man, Che Guevara and Jesus Christ becomes rolled into one martyred, cigar-smoking glass profile in El Country. A billboardlike send-up of an American $20 bill (marked "Tuenty Dolores" -- a pun in Spanish making reference to "your pains"), the gigantic piece is framed in Marlboro Country barbed wire that looks suspiciously like Christ's crown of thorns.

In the hands of Jamex and Einar de la Torre, even the revered Virgin of Guadalupe becomes a visual land mine, exploding the sacrosanct religious symbol to reveal psychosexual underpinnings. A miniversion of an installation first appearing at the 1998 Monterrey Bienal, a series of glass outlines of the Virgin becomes vulvas hanging on oversize nails, while phallic crosses represent male counterparts; all have been assigned boys' and girls' names, labeled, of course, in glass.

"We used personal names in order for them to become personalities in themselves," Jamex says. "The vagina/Virgin shape is something that originally comes from growing up with a big 19th-century painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe and an Aztec calendar coffee table, which are the clichéd symbols of the Chicanos. It's kind of ironic because, in Mexico, that's as tacky as you can get with nationalistic symbolism."

The de la Torre brothers' choice of glass as a predominant medium also segues nicely with their skillful, stylistic use of the tasteless and hackneyed. A tricky, shiny and not inexpensive material snidely dismissed by critics as being too pretty or utilitarian for its own good, glass appears to be the perfect vehicle for the artists' conceptual purposes.

"There's a word in Spanish, empalagoso, that means 'so sweet you just can't take it,'" notes Einar de la Torre. "In terms of the glass world, so much glass art is so damn syrupy gorgeous. To us, it becomes icky when that's all it's doing."

"Glass is extremely kitsch," adds Jamex. "I like the kitsch in the work."

But not everyone has been overly enthused with the de la Torre brothers' work, and not just because of its intentional tackiness. In April 1995, a mentally unstable, Bible-quoting religious zealot -- using the crash-bar handle of a safety-glass door he had shattered to break into a de la Torre exhibition -- destroyed 49 of 50 pieces representing more than two years of work. The surreal swath of destruction happened the day following their exhibition opening at San Jose Center for Latino Arts in San Jose, California. The only piece left standing was a large sculpture depicting the brothers' pet dachshund nailed to a cross, a wry nod to the fact that dogs frequently become road kill in Mexico. Though their work was broken, the brothers remained unbowed. Considering the rampage only a temporary setback, they created and exhibited entirely new work at the San Jose Center a year later.

And reception in staid Mexico City hasn't been any fiesta, either. There, the artists' work is considered by some to be overtly Chicano, more American than Mexican, and, for that reason, culturally suspect. According to Jamex, "While important critics liked it, rich people in Mexico City really disliked the work when we showed there because of the kitsch in it. They want to see Mexico go toward a certain refinement, which is contrary to the populist vein in Mexico."

"It's the nouveau riche that hate it," Einar admits. "That's one of the reasons we titled this show 'Nouveau Riche' -- because it's those very people who want to say that kitschiness is nouveau riche and vulgar. These are the same people who will put a dead lionskin rug in their house with Louis XIV furniture. In some ways, our work would go perfectly in their houses. At least our stuff is tongue-in-cheek about that. We represent something they're desperately trying to get away from -- themselves."

"Nouveau Riche" continues through Friday, December 31, at Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale.

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