Tijuana Brash

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

If the latest show in the back room of Lisa Sette Gallery reminds you of being hustled by souvenir vendors wielding lacy glass galleons and spray-painted plaster statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or Mickey Mouse at the Tijuana-San Diego border, you've actually gotten the real drift of "Nouveau Riche."

An exhibition of glass and mixed-media sculpture created by brothers Jamex and Einar de la Torre, "Nouveau Riche" is aesthetic testament to the jarring culture clash of la frontera, as the border between Mexico and the United States is commonly called.

Like a hard glint of light, their work -- over-the-top, garish and occasionally vulgar -- illuminates the bizarre but vital twilight zone of border culture. This bipolar world slam-dances against the post-industrial amid the blare of mariachi trumpets and hard-rock music. It's a shadowland in which the profoundly tacky effortlessly melds with the down-dirty sublime. Where else could Disneyesque mansions of newly moneyed technocrats vie for attention with makeshift corrugated tin shacks -- all within spitting distance of the climate-controlled tourist mecca of San Diego?

Jamex (left) and Einar de la Torre, with El Bloqueo.
Paolo Vescia
Jamex (left) and Einar de la Torre, with El Bloqueo.
Puerco Capitalista.
Paolo Vescia
Puerco Capitalista.

La frontera happens to be a world that the de la Torre brothers know intimately, since the binational artists shuttle constantly between a studio in San Diego and their home in San Antonio de las Minas, a small town outside of Baja's port city of Ensenada.

"I would say our work is frontera because it has to do with the immigration and repatriation experience, more than the Chicano or Mexican-American experience, which we were quite removed from," explains Jamex de la Torre, who, at 39, is the older of the artist brothers. Both were born and spent part of their childhood in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. After fleeing from a talented but abusively alcoholic architect father in the 1970s, the de la Torre family ended up in the very wealthy, very white beach community of Dana Point in south Orange County, California -- a far cry from the run-down barrios to which many Mexican-Americans were consigned at the time.

"It forced us to have a better grasp of white American culture, especially in the '70s," adds Jamex. "Because we are living in Mexico again, we are experiencing the border constantly in our lives -- that juxtaposition of how you deal with life on two sides that don't necessarily reconcile with one another."

By straddling both worlds, the de la Torre brothers, who work separately as well as collaboratively, have a perfect vantage point from which to view the ongoing collision between the aesthetics and mores of two wildly different countries. Obviously influenced by both Mexican and American pop culture, as well as traditional Mexican folk arts and crafts, their sculptures reflect the moods with which the artists track the ever-transmuting border scene. From quiet cynicism to celebratory glee -- whatever the mood, it's always seasoned with a heavy dash of irony. If their work is considered kitsch, it is kitsch with real content, consciously crafted with bad taste in mind.

Nothing escapes the cross hairs of the de la Torres' mordant, though fairly accurate, sight. Religion, especially Roman Catholicism, politics, history, metaphysics, social values, fad and fashion -- even home decor -- are grist for the mill. The artists take aim at the spirit of crass consumerism and materialism in Puerco Capitalista (Capitalist Pig), a twisted cross between the artists' version of the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg and the Bird in the Golden Cage. The piece features a grinning glass pig eating a chorizo sausage (traditionally made with pork, by the way) perched inside a cage made from a schlocky, recycled hanging sculpture. On the bottom of the cage lie golden plops of pig poop studded with quarters, while plastic ivy slinks up the cage's top.

The lure of an illusory good life promised to Cubans should the U.S. embargo be lifted is memorialized in El Bloqueo (The Embargo), which consists of an ornate glass skull, an overdone but still popular symbol of death lifted from the Mexican Day of the Dead, offered up on a scrounged platter emblazoned with "Give Us Our Daily Bread." Underneath, just out of reach, small glass "blue birds of happiness" thrust their open beaks skullward from eggs that are part of an old porcelain deviled-egg tray.

In Tool of Desire, a glass hand with a spike through its palm tops a pyramid made from a glass medallion stamped with the glittery silhouette of the buxom mud-flap lady, the de facto patron saint of truckers on both sides of the border, and cast-resin medallions in which float nuts, bolts and sewing notions. The medallions are take-offs on recuerditos, or little souvenirs much beloved by Mexicans and Americans alike, as well as good-luck charms found in Mexican marketplaces and botanicas. The de la Torres' charms mimic pagan amulets used for santeria or occult practices that comfortably co-exist alongside statues of traditional Catholic saints, Hindu deities and Buddhist Bodhisattvas. "There's a salsa song from Puerto Rico that says, 'The saint that doesn't work for me, I won't use,'" notes Einar. "As funny as that sounds, it's a very pragmatic approach to spirituality."

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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