All work shown in this post is by Mexican sculptor Javier Marin.
I've been thinking a lot, since Mexico but also before, about what makes people create the art they do. In my feed reader, on Flickr, and on Instagram, I "follow" a number of highly skilled and talented artists, and I've noticed that their work tends to fall into groups. On the one hand, there are the Mexican and American leftist printmakers, mostly young, often male, radical, political, influenced or participating in street art and body imagery, often obsessed by death symbolism, fantasy, and hyper-realistic animals.
And then there are a number of artists, mostly British, who do contemporary landscapes and still-lives in various media, depicting a pastoral and interior world of beauty, inhabited by sleek hares and whippets, songbirds, figurines and dishes, flowers and seedpods. Their work, especially in printmaking, is extraordinarily fine -- and yet it could not be more removed from the gritty urban vision of the Mexicans; it belongs to a world where people can think about decoration and beauty in relative comfort. There's an immediate affinity because of my own heritage, but...it's both me and not me. Or perhaps it was once me, but no longer.
While in Mexico, I was blown away by the work of a contemporary sculptor, Javier Marín. Marín does large-scale figurative pieces in bronze, wood, and resin, and he is one of the best sculptors I've ever seen.
At first, the work looks classical: it's the human body, it's beautiful, it's realistic, and the poses and style (whether in the round or bas-relief) definitely reference the Greeks. Marín doesn't deny the connection, but says he feels an even greater affinity to the 16th century movement of Mannerism, and artists such as Pontormo, who subverted the ideal proportions and elegance of classicism through compositional tension and instability, and an intellectual approach to the subjects.
Marín's impact and message are therefore absolutely current: the proportions are altered; his figures, heads, and bodies are slashed and marked; they have been sawn apart and put back together with wire reminiscent of barbed wire of concentration camps; and their attitude of nobility and suffering forces our gaze inward and outward at the same time, toward our humanity and our inhumanity alike.
Marín's work was exhibited both in large public spaces and intimate rooms, and these spaces become part of the conversation the artist initiates: who are we, in relationship to the grand plaza, the governmental edifices, the cathedral and the history it represents?
Or in this chapel with its huge old-master paintings of the Holy Family, what is this monumental wooden figure, titled Mujer? This roughly-chiseled every-woman, but only from the waist down, her crude bare toes reminding me of the lines in Luisa A. Igloria's poem, Dolorosa, "her unshod peasant's feet/bloated with edema."
What is this white cascade of bodies and body parts, this waterfall that forces me to think of holocausts, mass graves, unsolved "disappearances," the drone victims and drowned refugees of our unhappy history and current miserable world?
And next to it, this gilded woman ascending; at last, perhaps, free?
Much has been written about Marín in Mexico, but he's relatively unknown outside the country; I find this incredible - but then, he's Mexican. Thankfully, he's still young - in his early 50s - and that could change.
The common denominator in all of the work I've mentioned is the high level of skill and dedication of the artists: they are all working hard, doing their best; they're just coming from such different places. And of course there are also outliers: for example, artists from the UK whose work is grounded in these same traditions but who address more thorny subjects - Clive Hicks-Jenkins is one; Mexican artists whose work is less political, and achingly beautiful, responding to the people and the land. Even Diego Rivera, whose murals were filled with political protest, painted many paintings of this type.
And so I find myself reflecting on where I fit, and where I want to go with my own creative work. I draw, every day if I can, and in recent years the drawings have often used objects from my daily life, but I'm more and more uncomfortable with the purely decorative, with the simple search for beauty, harmony, and order which no longer feels complete or consonant with my emotions, thoughts, or values. I realize that my drawings are often a way of keeping despair about the world at bay, of doing something in a given day that is creative and life-affirming - but I feel the drawings are more honest when they contain some reminder of mortality, loss, grief, sorrow, even cruelty: a skull, a fossil, a bone, a wilted plant, dead things - or else deliberately reflect the juxtaposition of cultures which is the place I seem to inhabit more and more, rather than a particular geographic, cultural, or socioeconomic aesthetic. The landscape, to which I've always felt such an affinity, is a symbol for me of both desolation and comfort, of human isolation and strength. And the medium of relief printmaking seems to offer opportunities for figurative work and bolder, more graphic statements about the human condition. Conversely, as the work of these other artists repeatedly show, technique and good ideas have to work hand in hand - both are crucial, but neither sufficient on its own - and both must continually evolve.
I think we need to think hard about what we're doing as artists and writers, musicians and performers, and to be aware that over our lifetimes we need to grow and change and keep moving deeper. The themes and subjects that draw us can be a pointer toward our core self, but repetition itself is a kind of death into which we can be lulled by comfort and ease, or, equally, seduced into by praise. I don't know exactly where I'm headed next, and I'm aware that the path is a rocky upward one, but I've come to trust it. In the end it's not even the art that's important, but the progress of the spirit. I'm grateful for the chances to travel and experience and be curious, but in today's interconnected world we don't actually have to leave home to push ourselves out into a wider wilderness, we just have to venture out from what feels familiar, and be willing to learn from our discomfort, restlessness and yearning.