Enrique Alferez,"Eve" (detail)
The legacy of Mexican art and design in Chicago is primarily political. Inspired by the Bolshevik revolution as well as their own, Mexican painters and printmakers in the early decades of the twentieth century addressed that struggle between basic human needs and the accumulation of enormous wealth that continues today. They portrayed the innocence, endurance, and good intentions of working people, often with an emphasis on community, resistance, and iconic heroes. Outstanding among the printmakers was a collective named the Taller de Grafica Popular, established in Mexico City in 1937. Morris and Alex Topchevsky, Eleanor Coen, Max Kahn, Elizabeth Catlett, Margaret Burroughs, Charles White, Mariana Yampolsky, and Misch Kohn were all artists who traveled from Chicago to Mexico to work with the TGP.
Especially powerful are the prints of Charles White now on display in a special exhibit at the Art Institute. In this exhibit, it’s the vibrant linocut depictions of ordinary Mexican rural life by Mariana Yampolsky that stand out. Also remarkable is the dream-like depiction of cotton pickers in a linocut by Margaret Burroughs, who is perhaps better known for founding the DuSable Museum of African American History in her own living room. Right next to her oil portrait of Harriet Tubman hangs Elizabeth Catlett’s linocut portrait of the same national hero. That’s just one of many fascinating juxtapositions scattered throughout this exhibit.
Margaret Burroughs, "Cotton Pickers"
Not all of the Chicago area artist-/activists honed their visual skills in Mexico. Inspired by Jose Guadalupe Posada, an earlier political cartoonist, the work of Carlos Cortez delivers its message with simplicity, commitment, and vigor. Maria Varela was a civil rights activist who taught herself photography to promote voter registration in the American South. As it turned out, her feel for visual narrative and design could tell quite a story, even if the subject was only a pair of human hands.
Not all of the art in this show is overtly political, either. There are a few coffee tables and a portrait of the first Mayor Daley executed in mosaic by Genaro Alvarez, a modernist designer based in Mexico City. There are also some very lively small beasts and monsters created by Maria Enriquez. Her youngest son, Mario Castillo, is credited with painting the first of the many Chicano murals that would proliferate throughout Latino neighborhoods across the country. Curiously enough, the theme of that work, ’Metafisica’, as well as his work that followed, is more about self- realization and historic native cosmology than any political movement or discourse.
H.C. Westermann, "Portrait of Luis Ortiz"
And then there’s the Ortiz family, The father, Luis Ortiz, created a bold kind of abstract painting that feels as strange as Surrealism. Apparently his own physical presence also made quite an impression on other artists. The show includes several portraits of him, including one by H.C. Westermann, who shared his background as both acrobat and veteran of World War II. His son, Errol Ortiz, was among the first Chicago Imagists in the 1960’s. His geometric human figures, while not electrically charged like those by Karl Wirsum, feel more ancient and profound.
Many of the artists in this show will be familiar to those who follow our local art scenes. Yet surprisingly enough, the exhibit gives the most floor space to the one artist whom probably nobody has ever heard of: Enrique Alferez (1901 – 1999), a figurative sculptor who spent most of his long career making public sculpture in New Orleans. His life story is as amazing as his work. Born into a traditional sculptor’s family in Zacatecas, he ran away from home at the age of twelve and spent the next ten years in the army of Pancho Villa. Eventually escaping across the border into Texas, his path crossed that of Chicago’s great Beaux Arts sculptor, Lorado Taft, who was lecturing in El Paso. Following Taft back to Chicago, he would attend the Art Institute and live among the apprentices in Taft’s studio.
Enrique Alferez, "Adam" (detail)
Most of the Alferez work in this show comes from the last decades of his life. He was a storyteller like Taft and less interested in formal power than his more celebrated Mexican contemporary, Francisco Zuniga. But his Adam and Eve diptych is still quite an achievement —– and not just because he carved these two multi-figured, eight foot mahogany panels when he was nearly ninety years old. You could not ask for a more thoughtful and skillful handling of the most profound theme in European iconography. Responding to the history of the twentieth century, which almost exactly coincided with his own lifespan, Alferez has shown Woman rising upward while Man, going nowhere, covers his face in shame.
Modern classical figurative sculpture has been so thoroughly banished into the dustbin of history, it’s as if such recent examples could not possibly exist. Sometimes it is worth less than the cost of its materials. But living outside the mainstream of contemporary art, the National Museum of Mexican Art continues to show many kinds of recent art that visitors to other museums will never see. It’s leadership holds firm to those same social ideals that drove the Mexican muralists and printmakers in the early twentieth century. They show art that best addresses the human condition as they see it.. Artworld prestige and auction value are not especially relevant.