By Lawrence Toppman, The Charlotte Observer
Mexico is a dark gash in the Earth cracked open by a violent upheaval.
Mexico is a beautiful young girl emerging from an equally beautiful, misty river in a place that threatens the safety of both.
Mexico is a room full of smiling, elegant blonde women.
Mexico is an androgynous creature of immense bulk, sitting placidly in a field, with a head resembling a sharp-fanged ear of autumn corn.
Mexico is all these things and dozens more in “Develar y Detonar (Reveal and Detonate): Contemporary Mexican Photography” at the Mint Museum of Art.
These photographers shred stereotypes, replacing them with images that range from harsh realism to whimsy to mystical surrealism. They depict a land where Acapulco means not only tourism but terrorism, where a macho culture coexists comfortably with homosexuality and a “third sex,” where women might be placed on pedestals or in boardrooms. Superstition and sophistication share space on the fourth-floor walls of the uptown Mint through June 17, 2018.
This exhibition, seen for the first time in the United States after Madrid and Mexico City, crackles with energy in every shot or video frame. You may even step on a corpse: Fernando Brito’s photo of a victim of the drug trade, hands tied behind him and body half-submerged in chocolate-brown water, lies on the floor. Step back to examine his wall-mounted work, tread upon it, and you’ll recoil in horror.
Jonathan Stuhlman, senior curator of American, modern and contemporary art, calls this “the most challenging show in my time here.” It’s the largest segment of “In Focus/Enfoque,” exhibits of Mexican photography at seven Charlotte venues this year and next.
Exhibitions at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art (Paul Strand through Jan. 7 and modernist photographers Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Manuel Carrillo, Flor Garduño, Graciela Iturbide and Mariana Yampolsky through March 4) and LaCa Projects (the work of Karina Juárez, Alejandra Laviada, and Humberto Ríos through Jan. 13) are running now, and one at SOCO Gallery (Alejandro Cartagena) opens Dec. 13 and runs through Jan. 19. (By the way, UNC Charlotte’s Projective Eye Gallery will offer work by contemporary Latinx artists, most from Mexico and including some photography, in “¡VIVA!,” Jan. 19-25.)
Allen Blevins, Bank of America’s director of global art and heritage programs, coordinated this citywide effort and drew “Detonar” to Stuhlman’s attention after seeing it in Mexico City. Hydra, a Mexican art collective, culled the show there from the collection of the Televisa Foundation, then helped the Mint whittle it down for a 6,000-square-foot exhibit space.
It grabs you from the first shot at the entrance, Juan Carlos Coppel’s “The Fissure.” Amid the scrubby trees and cracked earth of Sonora, a crevice opened one day that permanently separated two villages from a water reservoir. You could take it as a visual hint at divisions in Mexico: racial, economic, rural vs. urban, traditional vs. contemporary. Our southern neighbor, like ourselves, consists of indigenous regions often at odds with each other.
“We signed on for this long before the political dialogue in 2016 about Mexico being full of bad guys who have to be kept out of our country,” says Stuhlman. “This is a show by Mexicans, not someone from the outside who’s picking images of Mexico. The images are specific to that country, but they also reflect global issues.”
Each piece in the show has the power to open your eyes (sometimes with shock) and your mind. Here are 10 not to miss:
1. Guillermo Serrano’s collection of Tlaxcala pimps’ houses presents mansions – notably “Arab House with Domes” – that blend opulence, fantasy and a mad desire to show off. The Catholic Church condemns prostitution. But in poor areas, people in charge of it may be rich enough to buy respectability. (Note the juxtaposition with Yvonne Venegas’ shots of a Tijuana family in traditionally privileged society.)
2. Mauricio Alejo photographed pathways that lead into the desert and fade to nothing, like contrails from planes reflected in the sand. He has mounted a collection of 25 in “End of the Road.” Are they peaceful vistas of human advances? Symbols of lost dreams that went nowhere? More prosaically, Stuhlman says, they were made by human “coyotes” who conveyed illegal immigrants into the United States.
3. Maya Godeo’s gut-wrenching video “Norma (Juarez City, Chihuahua)” shows a woman weeping silently in a graveyard full of white stones and multi-hued flowers in tiny pots. (Any Mexican would know this location marks countless drug-related murders.) In another video, her camera wanders down empty streets, past a rusted swing set and storefronts filled with photos of those who have died or disappeared.
4. Koral Carballo’s “The Last Day of the World” closes in on the age-spotted hands of a woman, her right index finger unmoving as a fly crawls toward her wrist. The arthritic hands rest on a beautiful dress of red and gold. Carballo, once a crime photographer in Veracruz, became horrified by the job and now expresses ideas more obliquely: This Mexico is a dying country, still attired for a fiesta.
5. In Luis Aguirre’s brightly colored portraits of transvestites, one sports an Amy Winehouse hairdo and tattoos of a naval anchor and the name Cynthia. These photos complement Romeo Dolorosa’s brash self-portrait, where he wears a beard, a dress and a confrontational expression. “These artists break taboos,” says Stuhlman. “Their images can be poetic, but they’re challenging cultural norms.”
6. Karina Juárez’ brand of surrealism would have raised a smile among Parisian counterparts a century ago. In “Anthill, Oaxaca,” a woman lies serenely on her right side, facing away from us and nude to the waist. Is she asleep? Resting peacefully, or resting in peace? Meanwhile, black ants crawl all over her white body. The show offers surprising moments of dark humor like this one.
7. Diego Moreno’s “Azucena,” one of the masked panzudes from his “Guardians of Memory” series, was inspired by his Chiapas childhood. She holds lilies (associated with purity) to her immense bosom, whose bulk represents the sins for which she must atone: The more sins, the fatter the costume has to be. Her tacky dress from Señor Frog’s, a Cancún tourist trap, may suggest the kinds of sins she committed.
8. Pablo Lopez Luz’ “Aerial View of Mexico City,” an immense photograph of North America’s largest metropolis, reveals a monotony of white, washed-out buildings that makes the sprawling capital seem like a small town jacked up on steroids. Seeing it will make you relieved to live in a city one-tenth as populated.
9. Nelson Morales – an artist who just concluded a residency at McColl Center – made photographs among the Zapatec culture in Oaxaca, where openly gay and transgender people (called “muxe,” a “third sex”) are not only accepted but considered a blessing: They pursue professions that yield steady income (sewing, hairdressing and such) and remain at home to support their parents after straight siblings marry and move away.
10. Find everything from the bizarre imagination of Fernando Montiel Klint: The elderly laborer with a huge blue head, the sparkly-eyed baby clutched by a woman clad top to toe in what looks like a gold-lamé burqa, the shot of a taxidermist who’s apparently so dedicated that he’s willing to stick his head into a panda’s – well, you’ve just got to see it. And laugh. And maybe think a little, too.
DEVELAR Y DETONAR (REVEAL AND DETONATE)
When: Through June 17; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays.
Where: Mint Museum of Art, 500 S. Tryon St.
Admission: $15 ($10 college students or seniors 65 and over, $6 ages 5 to 17, free under 5). Free Wednesdays 5 to 9 p.m.
Mature themes? Oh, yes. Many.