Vanity Fare

The glamorous Jacques and Natasha Gelman outshine much of the work they collected in 'Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Twentieth-Century Mexican Art'

To anyone familiar with Mexican art history, the Gelman exhibition is not a well-balanced overview of Mexican art at mid-century, continued to the present in the same judiciously chosen vein. Rather, it's a classically status-driven, gotta-be-better-than-the-Gomezes compilation reflecting one type of art collector's psychic preoccupation with memorializing himself and notable public figures with which he has socialized. Frankly, it's one more befitting a newly moneyed, 18th-century Dutch burgher than a discerning, visionary collector seeking emerging and mid-career artists' best and most enduring work.

With some exceptions, work (usually relegated to portraiture or figurative work) by Rivera, as well as muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, are second-rate pickings compared to these artists' overall oeuvres. Representation in the Gelman collection seems to be shaped by how close one was to the collectors and/or how important one was in the existing social and artistic schema.

For example, Orozco is poorly represented because the Gelmans and the testy, socially conscious artist did not get along, while the collection is conspicuously top-heavy with mediocre cuboid abstracts by Gunther Gerzo, a personal friend who worked for Jacques as a set designer on his Cantinflas pictures and who gave a number of pieces to the Gelmans. The collection's sole painting by Roberto Montenegro, a very competent portraitist, is one of the most hackneyed landscapes he's ever executed. Caricaturist and painter Miguel Covarrubias is relegated to one drawing of a rather rotund Diego Rivera. Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Atl) lacks any representation whatsoever, probably because he eschewed the excitement of the flashy Mexico City art scene in favor of painting erupting volcanoes in Michoacan and collecting folk art in the countryside.

Autorretrato con monos (Self Portrait with 
Monkeys) by Frida Kahlo, 1943.  The Jacques and 
Natasha Gelman Collection; copyright Banco de 
Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, 
Av. Cinco de Mayo No 2, Co. Centro, Del. Cuahtemoc, 
06059, Mexico, DF.  Reproduccion autorizada por el 
Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura.
Autorretrato con monos (Self Portrait with Monkeys) by Frida Kahlo, 1943. The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection; copyright Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Av. Cinco de Mayo No 2, Co. Centro, Del. Cuahtemoc, 06059, Mexico, DF. Reproduccion autorizada por el Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura.

Details

Continues through Sunday, June 24. Call 602-257-1222.
Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central

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The real marrow of the Gelman collection is its second half, which, among other strong work by contemporary Mexican artists, includes several exquisite pieces with internal references to Mexican folklore and iconography by Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, as well as rice paper huipiles(indigenous Mexican women's blouses), embroidered with human hair and decorated with blood, by Paula Santiago. The most entertaining and acerbic work, however, has been served up by Miguel Calderón and Cisco Jiménez, two rather irreverent newcomers who take to task Mexican popular culture and mores.

Calderón's guerrilla forays at night into Mexico City's Museum of Natural History dioramas for photographic backdrops and his imaginative use of hairy testicles in several photo montages have an especially contemporary bite to them (I won't give away the punch lines). And one of the best pieces by Jiménez, Códice Chafamex, is a cross between obsessional R. Crumb comic doodlings and William Wylie visual puns. It's chock full of hilarious sayings written in Mexican guttersnipe slang and creative obscenities. Unfortunately, this piece can't be truly appreciated unless the viewer understands Spanish (as it was by two very refined, older female art patrons who were giggling uncontrollably as they stood and read the entire piece out loud while I watched). Whatever happened to in-depth, bilingual wall texts, highly appropriate to an exhibition that features Mexican art, to help translate for the unilingual among us museumgoers?

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