Going to the airport for reasons other than the usual provides an entirely new perspective on the place: Suited beings traverse the empty corridors looking nowhere but ahead; strange desert-themed gift shops offer the best in plastic souvenir ware such as rattlesnake heads encased in glass, while other "high end" shops offer such necessities as chile-shaped Christmas ornaments and painted ceramic dog figurines in various stages of repose; unwatched television sets bearing witness to no one serve up some distant sporting event; people talk loudly into their cellular phones, only to be drowned out by the computerized voice warning visitors not to accept carry-ons from strangers. This is a place of transition; the people are here only to wait or to be transported to another location.
Not your typical locale for an art exhibition, and one must admire the challenge undertaken in transforming it into a viable art venue. And though Starbucks, Burger King and the almighty Jamba Juice lend a homogenized air to the place, the artwork displayed in Terminal 4 of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is anything but generic culture for the hurried/harried masses.
The latest show, "Cofradia de Luz (Brotherhood of Light)," comes to Phoenix via the Consulate General of Mexico, El Centro de la Imagen -- Mexico City's famous contemporary photography school -- and several other Mexican art and cultural institutions. Pulling together 15 of the most famous Mexican photographers from the 1930s to the present, the show is worth making the trip, dealing with parking and hanging out in an airport terminal for several hours -- even if Aunt Bessie doesn't arrive from Minnesota until late November.
Gabriel Figueroa, who died in 1997, was arguably Mexico's greatest cinematographer. Born in 1907, Figueroa traveled to Hollywood early in his career and studied with legendary Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland. After frequent collaborations with Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, Figueroa was chosen to film The Night of the Iguana, John Huston's 1964 adaptation of Tennessee Williams' tale of a defrocked preacher heading south of the border for redemption.
Figueroa's photographs, dating to the 1940s, convey the same cinematic qualities found in his films. La Malquerida, Pedro Armendariz is vintage post-war noir -- an extreme close-up of a dark, brooding villain caught in the middle of a post-smoke exhale. Enemies maintains the same cinematic vein as it shows a small group of revolutionaries, complete with sombreros and pistolas, hunched together on a vast desert plain. Only the ominous clouds in the photograph's foreground hint at the impending conflict and bloody resolution.
José Hernandez-Claire is a photographer whose work documents the daily life and struggles of the Huichol people who live in the high Sierra Madre Occidental mountains northwest of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco. Considered a link to an ancient, non-European Mexico, the Huichol people are held in high esteem in Mexico for their religion, connection to nature and unspoiled agrarian life -- all which connect to the use of peyote.
Hernandez-Claire's photographs depict this connection to the land by showing Huichol workers busy with the tobacco crops, a not-too-subtle reminder of the traditional ways being swept away by the overwhelming tide of capitalism and business. Another photograph, Young Huichol Mother, shows a young woman surrounded by large bundles of tobacco leaves. Hernandez-Claire, who attended the Pratt Institute in New York, continues with these works the long tradition of social awareness in art that has become a staple of art in Mexico during the past century, and in this country during the 1930s and 1940s.
Continuing the social and anthropological edge of the exhibition, Pablo Ortiz Monasterio offers his series, "La Corazón de Venado," or "Heart of a Deer," which in full, vibrant color documents rituals and celebrations of native people in South America. Like Hernandez-Claire's photographs, the works offer full interpretations of the importance and difficulties of myth and ritual in today's world. Participants are shown clad in snake/bird-style masks, with wooden curved staffs and brightly embroidered clothing. Look a little closer, though, and the twine-wrapped jugs are construction-style plastic coolers, a modern-day convenience that has found its way into ritual.
The power of the "Monasterio" series is a bit deflated by the installation of the work. Of the eight parts to this series, all depicting various moments of the same ritual, no more than two are shown together. Of the six display cases used to house the show, five of them have portions of the "Monasterio" series. One has to wonder why they weren't shown together to get the full impact of this emotional and passionate work.
Switching from reality to fiction, or, as we've learned from Latin American literature, magical realism, several other photographers trade daily life for more abstract subject matter. The most effective of these is Flor Garduno, whose dreamlike visions in black and white recall Salvador Dali dream sequences or Gabriel Garcia Marquez short stories rather than contemporary photography. La Mujer Que Sueña -- The Woman Who Dreams -- is pure beauty; a woman lies sleeping on a plain straw mat, her white blouse unbuttoned and completely opened to her side, while her lower half is covered by a dark traditional skirt. Next to the woman and also on the mat are two glistening and very alive iguanas, their bodies forming alternative patterns of ruggedness and curves contrasting the beauty of the half-clothed dreamer.
Graciela Iturbide also borrows from fantasy with works such as Cayo del Cielo or Island in the Sky. With such a title, one wouldn't expect the simplicity and minimalism of the final image: a woman, shown from neck to feet, draped in a willowy dress of pure white. Shown against the dark alleyway background, the woman does stand out as the name suggests.
Apparently, the show was so large that even the cavernous halls of Terminal 4 were too small for the entire haul. The remainder of the show, some 20 more works, can be found in a small room at the Mexican Consulate on 19th Avenue and Camelback. Though a visit to the consulate is about as entertaining as a visit to the airport with no arrivals or departures to speak of, this show would make the trip worthwhile.
As for us, we saw the recent Annie Leibovitz show and marveled at the beauty of Lil' Kim's nipples and Karen Finley's curvaceous behind, but we'll take this current lot instead, even if one has to travel elsewhere than a museum to see it.
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