Visual Arts

Folk Score

Ashamedly, one of my favorite parts about visiting a museum is hitting the gift shop. I'm a filthy consumer and I satiate my purchase thirst with postcards and cheap knockoffs of the invaluable art on display. If you happen to stop by just about any local art museum gift shop these days, you'll probably come across some papier-mâché or wooden skeletons dressed as mariachis, doctors, or devils. Purses made of Mexican oil cloth, tin retablos for your bathroom wall, and milagro-infested trinkets are everywhere. The items are spiritual, playful, and deeply rooted in Mexican folk art tradition. It's all easy to fall in love with, and, usually, so affordable.

So when ASU Art Museum's "Everyday Miracles: Latin American Folk Art From the Cecere Collection" opened, I had my doubts that I would see anything much unlike what I could find for five bucks at the gift shop. But immediately, there was a marked difference, and one that made me truly appreciate this show. The works on display have a secondhand feel — like those in a thrift store. The items boast dirt, scratches, cracks, and other evidence of age proudly. Unlike the gift shop goodies, they are used, worn, and were once treasured for their function. It's easy to sense that aura of adoration and it's what elevates this collection.

The show contains a mountain of works donated by self-professed "fanatical collector" and retired diplomat Peter P. Cecere, who is slowly searching for permanent homes to adopt his beloved collection of more than 12,000 pieces. Marilyn Zeitlin, the museum's director and chief curator, met Cecere years ago during a trip to Mexico and recently had the opportunity to choose 1,000 pieces for ASU Art Museum.

Corpus Christi Headdress is an absolute fright, but its ugliness ignites curiosity and its authenticity cannot be denied. The festival of Corpus Christi (translated as "body of Christ") celebrates the Eucharist and typically involves a parade or procession following church mass. Dancers and performers line the streets as participants enjoy the feast at hand.

It's a party — and what's a party without a party hat? Here, a felt bowler hat is painted with swirly lines and polka dots in primary colors. The paint is cracked, dirty, and looking pretty old. Attached atop is an awkwardly affixed framework, covered in dingy fabric that has the shape of a beat-up cardboard delivery box. The panels of shabby fabric are attached with unskilled and lopsided stitch work. Yellow foil covers the front panel of the headdress and all kinds of weird crap is embedded. It basically looks like the artist emptied out a bag lady's shopping cart and started gluing like crazy. There are plastic and metal buttons, small photo frames, buckles, a watchband and various charms. Cheap plastic figurines of dogs, birds, and other animals that a child would get from a grocery store vending machine are also attached. The thing is hideous — but I love it because I can just imagine someone partying their brains out in this outlandish thing. With a hat like that, why hold back?

My favorite, by far, are the retablos — a series of anonymously painted tin panels that offer thanks and prayer for an individual or family's fortune. The most engaging of the set shows a battle scene, in which among a maze of sandbag walls, small figures in sombreros and overalls are shown fighting. The elements are crudely depicted — thick, black paint strokes outline every sandbag and the men's bodies are poorly represented with disproportionately long arms and frigid poses. But the actions are communicated nonetheless. To the right of the battle, three people pray to the Virgin Mary, who is perched on a cloud. Spanish text scrolls along the bottom of the tin, offering thanks to the Virgin and Santo Nino de Plateres (Saint of the Silversmiths) for saving two sons from a brutal attack on March 27, 1956. This event was obviously a landmark story of divine intervention in one family's history and it's wonderful to see this traditional route of documentation.

Most of the pieces are certainly folk — worn and obviously used, created by anonymous artists who show limited technical artistic skill. One work, however, is too glossy and gorgeous to be considered 100 percent folky. Tree of Life by Tiburcio Soteno Fernandez is a traditional ceramic candelabra-like sculpture, depicting a visual narrative to be read from top to bottom.

Here, the artist tells the story of Adam and Eve. Bold fronds, leaves, and flowers clamber over each other, creating a busy and exciting composition. A large serpent sits dead center, curling its way through the foliage. The ceramic jungle clears in certain spots to reveal Adam and Eve depicted in scenes from their story. It's beautifully done and has roots in folk tradition, but really doesn't have the same charming wear and tear seen in the retablos or the headdress.

The same can be said of the calaveras by David Moctezuma. His large papier-mâché skeletons are dressed as bride, groom, and ice cream vendor — random characters from daily life. The pieces have a glistening finish and are certainly beautiful but, thankfully, these calaveras account for a small percentage of the show. I love those figurines just as much as the next morbid museum patron but, lately, with so many people catching on to the little guys, the motif feels a bit played out.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi