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"Turn Off the Sun" at ASU Art Museum: A Hot Mess, Despite Some Cool Art

Francis Alÿs' multi-media installation Cuando La Fe Mueve Montañas (When Faith Moves Mountains), Lima, Peru, April 11 th, (2002)
Francis Alÿs' multi-media installation Cuando La Fe Mueve Montañas (When Faith Moves Mountains), Lima, Peru, April 11 th, (2002)
Courtesy of the artist and La Colección Jumex, México.

¿Como se dice "hot mess" en español?

It's about the only term I can think of to describe "Turn Off the Sun," an on-going exhibition of selections from the mighty Jumex Collection now showing at ASU Art Museum.

Initially, I was ecstatic when I heard that work from the Jumex Collection was to be shown locally. My enthusiasm was seriously curbed after seeing ASUAM's selection and treatment of the Jumex offerings - and I saw the show on two separate occasions to boot.

See also: Paolo Soleri Is the True Legend of the Arizona Architecture Scene

La Colección Jumex, currently housed in Ecatepec, an industrial area about 45 minutes drive on a good day from the Centro Histórico of Mexico City, is said to be one of the largest and most important collections of contemporary art in Latin America. Started by Eugenio Lopez, sole heir to the multi-national Jumex food and fruit juice empire and a heavy-weight player in the world art market, the international collection includes not only blue chip artists like Cy Twombly, Carl Andre, Bruce Nauman, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, but also current art luminaries like Mike Kelly, Francis Alÿs, Doug Aitken, Félix González-Torres (now deceased) and Rivane Neuenschwander. Not to mention every important contemporary artist in between, plus emerging Mexican artists.

It's located in a stunning space inside the Jumex factory complex, though you will have to surrender your passport in order to get in, even with a prior appointment. In November, Jumex plans to open a new, five-story museum, more centrally located in Polanco, Mexico City's answer to Bel Aire, designed by noted British modernist architect David Chipperfield. It will be neighbors with another heavy-hitter private museum, Museo Soumaya, housing the private collection of telecommunications magnate, Carlos Slim - said to be the richest man in the world - comprised of international art, artifacts and historical documents from the 15th through 20th century. Talk about an artistic mother lode. These are just a few of the reasons I love Mexico City so much.

 

Liza Lou's Security Fence (2005-2007). Steel and glass beads.
Liza Lou's Security Fence (2005-2007). Steel and glass beads.
Photo by Craig Smith. Courtesy of the artist and La Colección Jumex, México.

However, "Turn Off the Sun" - the phrase is said to have been taken from a passing comment made by Colección Jumex's director and curator as they walked midday from their Tempe hotel to ASUAM in the middle of August - has turned out to be more of a misguided, badly planned scavenger hunt than a cohesive, thematically integral exhibition. According to the museum's introductory wall text, work for the exhibition was "...selected around the complex relationship between Arizona and Mexico, with broad references to borders, labor, movement and site," whatever those terms may embrace.

"Turn Off the Sun," according to ASUAM curator Julio César Morales, who worked with ASUAM senior curator Heather Lineberry and Jumex curator Michel Blanscubé in organizing the show, is aimed at being "...a curatorial intervention...based on how...this work [can] really reflect the current state of Arizona and, in general, how...it [can] create a dialogue between the United States and Mexico."

Unfortunately, very little of this monumental underlying theme comes through when viewing the work, especially since there are no visible wall texts to inform the viewer about the name of the piece, the artist or information critical to a real understanding of and appreciation for a particular piece. We're supposed to rely on booklets and schematic layouts of the galleries cued to a separate list of the names of pieces and artists. Too bad that the first time I saw the show, no booklets were to be found in any of the galleries (security has said that they are ripped off with great regularity) - not that they would have been much help in any event, given their academic, art jargon-laden style and failure to connect particular work with the museum's chosen unifying idea of border relations. Hell, I didn't even get to see a number of pieces strewn within and without the museum proper, including an installation by Raul Cardenas/Torolab in the office of museum director Gordon Knox and a site-specific piece mounted on the back and top of the museum by Alejandro Almanza, because of serious lack of identifying guideposts. I ended up reading about them in the spiffy exhibition catalog accompanying the show.

Doug Aitken's Diamond Sea (1997) installation
Doug Aitken's Diamond Sea (1997) installation
Photo by Craig Smith. Courtesy of the artist and La Colección Jumex, México.

César Morales says he finds wall texts distracting and that "it's more important to interact with the work and have a visceral response to it." My visceral response to the heavily conceptual offerings, even at a second viewing of "Turn Off the Sun"? Total and abysmal confusion, for the most part. And I have more than just a passing knowledge of Mexico and border relations.

In all fairness, some work stood admirably on its own, though not necessarily within the show's intended parameters. California artist Doug Aitken's four-part Diamond Sea video installation from 1997 in the third-floor gallery, which runs almost 12 minutes, is deeply meditative and poetic, though I came to find out that the mining and desolate desert footage used was shot in Africa in a heavily restricted diamond mining area. Cuando la fe mueve montañas (When Faith Moves Mountains) (2002) by Mexican artist Francis Alÿs in the second-floor Kresge Gallery, a performance/video/installation piece involving 600 Peruvian student volunteers reconfiguring a Lima, Peru hillside, like an act of nature or God, is well-documented and engaging, especially since the video has English subtitles for non-Spanish speakers. And American artist Liza Lou, who now lives in South Africa - probably because it's the beading capital of the universe - scores a direct hit with Security Fence (2005-2007), a Sartrean-No-Exit security enclosure completely covered with shimmery, silver-lined glass seed beads.

 

Eduardo Sarabia's ceramics installation A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (2005)
Eduardo Sarabia's ceramics installation A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (2005)
Photo by Craig Smith. Courtesy of the artist and La Colección Jumex, México.

Two of the best pieces in the entire show were largely lost because of unsuitable placement. Miguel Calderón's Evolución del hombre (Evolution of Man) (1995) was banished to a no-man's-land hallway on the third floor, an unfortunate curatorial decision, to be sure. Calderón's large-scale photographic series mimics those classic natural history illustrations about the evolution of man from his simian beginnings, with the artist donning an unruly black wig for the project. From a naked, crouched position (though he's wearing white socks), we follow Calderón as he becomes more clothed, more upright and more dangerously armed with bigger and more imposing weapons.

Sadly sequestered and segregated across the street in the Ceramics Research Center, Eduardo Sarabia's tongue-in-cheek ceramics installation, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (2005), had much more to do with US-Mexican relations than probably any piece in the exhibition. The artist painted traditional Mexican blue-and-white talavera urns with signs and symbols intimately connected with the Mexican drug cartel: marijuana leaves, hand guns, assault weapons, dope-smoking ne'er do wells, one of which flashes the peace sign, buxom bimbos, tequila bottles and a variety of slang icons for different drugs the cartels routinely smuggle.

Maybe it's the old problem of too many cooks spoiling the broth - in this case, too many curators cooking up the show concept, which was so amorphous as to be non-existent. The next time work from La Colección Jumex is shown at ASUAM (and I hope to God there is a next time), I would suggest refraining from stuffing the art into a conceptual bag that doesn't really or only marginally fits - and discreetly identifying the work in situ for us less clued-in museum goers, with special attention to art in nooks and crannies outside the museum's gallery walls.

"Turn Off the Sun: Selections from La Colección Jumex" runs through September 7, 2013 at ASU Art Museum, www.asuartmuseum.asu.edu, 10th Street and Mill Avenue, Tempe.

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