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Dialogues' Offers Eye-Opening Survey of Mexican Photos

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then conversation is not lacking at the Mexican Cultural Institute.

The 60 images that make up “Dialogues in Mexican Photography” can really be thought of as two exhibitions in one. On the first floor of the institute’s 100-year-old mansion are works by some of Mexico’s most influential 20th-century photographers, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City. Then on the fourth floor are photo-based works by five contemporary artists, presented jointly with one of the top contemporary art galleries in Mexico, OMR. Organized by subject rather than chronologically, the idea is to show how different generations often share artistic themes even though their presentations of those themes can vary greatly.

“There’s not a direct link” between the older and newer works, said Alejandra de la Paz, executive director of the institute. “I think that in an artistic process it’s very difficult to establish a continuum. Nevertheless, you can see that landscape — which has been a very strong theme in Mexican photography, especially in the first half of the 20th century — is present still in the younger artists, although their preoccupations and the way they portray this landscape is completely different.”

In the past, landscape photos were used to construct geographic identity and show aesthetic, ideological and moral values. Today’s works “have more to do with portraying a sense of urban chaos or sensitivity regarding the juxtaposition of rural and urban,” de la Paz explained. “It’s interesting to see that at least three of the artists present in the contemporary show work around the idea of landscape, although it’s sort of landscape revisited.

“What is very interesting is to see themes that permeate different generations,” de la Paz added. “There are some links that are present even though the intentions or artistic preoccupations behind them may have changed in the course of time.”

The downstairs collection ranges in style — from avant-garde classical to late modern works and photographs that explore images as aesthetical constructions — and features some of the 20th century’s most important photographers, including Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Agustín Jiménez, Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, as well as contemporary artists such as Graciela Iturbide, Pablo Ortiz Monasterio and Lourdes Grobet.

The oldest images date to the 1920s, the decade following the country’s revolution, a time when the first Mexican School of Photography was formed and artists used a purist aesthetic to represent their new national identity. Throughout the ensuing decades, Mexican photographers embraced new methods of picture-taking. For instance, in the 1950s, the photo-story, or photojournalism, became popular and gave way to documentary photography with a more propagandistic tone in the 1980s.

One of the most striking images from the collection is “Blue Demon at Home,” shot by Lourdes Grobet around 1980. In it, a man clad in a light-colored suit and dark tie sits formally while his face is covered by a blue-and-silver, superhero-like mask. The mask is actually part of a costume the man wore in his role as a luchador, or wrestler, and the photo is part of a collection that Grobet put together of luchadores posing in situations quite different from the wrestling arenas that brought them fame.

“What she tried to present was these wrestlers that are very well known in Mexico, and you see them in the arenas, to change the surrounding and put them in their intimate surroundings. That is, in their homes, with their families,” de la Paz said. “There is a very interesting, ironic, sometimes surprising mixture of the strength of a wrestler and then surrounded in a very intimate, cozy atmosphere of home.”

Patricia Ortíz Monastario, a director of Gallery OMR in Mexico, served as curator for the contemporary portion of the exhibit upstairs. The younger artists tend to use photography “in the context of other artistic disciplines and as a tool of expression, not as an end in and of itself, to highlight tendencies in contemporary Mexican photography,” she said in a press release. “Their work is open, complex, collaborative and conceptual. In the strictest sense of the word it is still photography, but what inspires these artists’ creativity is largely informed by the new technologies which pervade modern life.”

Mauricio Alejo illustrates this approach in works such as “The space in between,” taken in 2005, which depicts a plain wooden chair with seemingly crucial parts eliminated, such as part of a leg. “There’s a strong area in the museum collection that works around how artists construct certain scenarios for photographic purposes,” de la Paz said. “Mauricio Alejo’s work that’s also present upstairs shares this sort of concern, creating sort of ephemeral structures that are then photographed and obviously don’t exist in reality. They are the creation of an artist for a particular moment that is captured through the photograph.”

The exhibit itself was the creation of de la Paz’s desire for the Mexican Cultural Institute to be part of FotoWeek DC. Though the citywide photography festival ended in November, de la Paz has extended the “Dialogues” exhibit to enable more people to see the images. “It’s a true opportunity to see so many important names in the photographic scene together in a very interesting dialogue of generations, of themes,” she said. “It’s a very complete, in lots of ways, survey of what is going on in terms of photographs in Mexico City.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat

Last Edited on July 2, 2014