MCA Denver’s new exhibition, “Saber Acomodar: Art and Workshops of Jalisco 1915-Now,” is an exciting glimpse of the rich interplay between traditional artisanal production and more conceptual, avant-garde work of the Jalisco region of Mexico. Simultaneously, it’s a frustrating perpetuation of the maddening idea that there’s five times as many male than female artists worth exhibiting.
Guest-curated by Patrick Charpenel, “Saber Acomodar,” takes over the entire three floors of the museum, and is spread out over five different thematic areas: cultural roots, skills, materials, time and workshops. It’s an adequate way to organize the show and it fleshes out the (often perceived) distance between expert, artisanal production and the flashier, conceptually agile, work of artists in the last hundred years.
Often, as on the lower level, this curatorial plumb line is connected straight through to the artisanal history of the region. The entire floor is covered in exquisite tile made by Jorge Pardo in collaboration with the famed ceramics studio Cerámica Suro. The studio, founded by Noé Suro Olivares, was in turn a move from the beautiful, utilitarian ceramics of the region into the less strictly functional, more experimental art that characterizes much of the twentieth and twenty-first century avant-garde. There’s nothing else in the lower level; it’s just an expanse of bright tile that gradually transitions from light blue and white and gray tiles to darker blues and grays. The otherwise empty space is nonetheless full of cool colors and a light that doesn’t quite dance like it would at the bottom of a pool, but almost.
Artisanal conceptualism, I’ll call it, shows up elsewhere. In the “Workshops” section, Daniela Aguilar’s metal dolls are arranged in various positions, ensconced in the walls and even in a plinth, their polished metal craft (she started as a jewelry designer) oddly amplifying the bizarre positions in which they’ve been arranged, peaking out at you. Occupying the “Time” gallery, there’s “Una escuela de huaracheros” by Claudia Fernández, an arrangement of the popular leather shoes, huaraches, made by Tapatio craftspersons. The shoes, traditional to western Mexico, originated with the Aztecs. Now, they’re in a contemporary art museum.
There’s also “Untitled (Cerámica Suro)” by Mario García Torres. Again, the “by” is complicated. The work is two stacks of ceramic plates made in the titular studio. Torres found handwritten notes by studio workers and had them added to the plates. Here the collective, production-based work of artisans is transformed into an individual artist’s work in an exhibition showcasing the influences and craft of artisans in Jalisco. It makes your head spin a little bit (in a good way) and while you’re unpacking where the artisan ends and the artist begins, you have time to admire the sheer skill and craft of the people who made these things.
Elsewhere, the artwork is more firmly at a distance from the traditional. Mathias Goeritz’ wonderfully enigmatic series of pieces, each titled “Mensaje,” feature golden-foil-covered metal perforated in simple, varying patterns. They’re messages, but of what? In the same room, part of the “Skills” portion of the show, is a series of geometric paintings gradually moving from a single line to many lines to an entire canvas blacked out. By Eduardo Terrazas, “Crecimiento exponencial” is a fitting visual to an exhibition that draws a line from traditional crafts and artisanship to contemporary artists working in more contemporary modes, from comics to geometric sculptures to conceptualism. Is such a development a straight line, and how far can an artist take it?
All of the work in “Saber Acomodar” sits comfortably away from some imagined too-far. In some instances, I wished it had gone farther. Take Francisco Ugarte’s “Sin título (Caja de Persianas),” a large, cubical, wood frame whose vertical sides consist of window blinds closed or open to varying degrees. In a press photo, the artwork is shown lit from within on a nighttime lawn. It’s a haunting example of how an artwork can drastically alter the space it occupies, but at the MCA, it’s given one of the smaller, windowless galleries and it shares its space with a number of other works. It’s brightly lit but by a different artwork that uses a light box. It feels deflated and underused.
The “library,” in the largest gallery, also seems like a missed opportunity. At the very center is “Gabinete: biblioteca de posible lecturas,” a circular bookshelf featuring little knickknacks and books that “suggest the importance of scholarship about the works on view in this gallery and the rest of the museum, as well as their antecedents.” A gallery attendant is present to inform you that the library is simply there to be looked at; scholarship, apparently, is for others, not museum goers. And how tempting it is to reach out and flip through the volumes. Who knows what possibilities could arise from allowing museum goers to interact with the library. There’s not even a catalogue listing the library’s contents. The gesture towards scholarship is a concept here, and a mostly empty one at that.
The biggest missed opportunity, by far, however, is the lack of female artists represented. Of the twenty five artists in the show, three are women. In an otherwise dazzling show, at turns head-scratching and fun and impressive and beautiful, this wildly unbalanced gender parity is itself head-scratching.
MCA Denver is doing tremendous work to bridge its own time and place with that of Jalisco, Mexico, and such collaborations are turning into MCA traditions. One art-world tradition that should be dropped, ASAP? Undervaluing art made by women.