Y nuestra herencia era una red de agujeros. Los últimos días del sitio de Tenochtitlan. XV Cantos tristes de la conquista. (And our inheritance was a network of holes. The last days of the Tenochtitlan site. XV Sad Songs of the Conquest)
Todo lo otro (Everything Else) is a sprawling solo exhibition of 300+ works by Germán Venegas (b.1959). At Museo Tamayo (Mexico City), you see Venegas’ mastery of expressive technique—drawings, woodcarvings, sculptures, tempera paintings on canvas—along with 15 thematic series that meld Venegas’ Buddhist practice with his intellectual interests: art history, Greek mythology, pre-Hispanic cosmogony, his personal Nahuatl ancestry and Mexican nationality.
Venegas was born into a family of woodcarvers, a discipline that remains a part of his repertoire of art-making techniques. Until he was six, he lived in his birthplace, La Magdalena Tlatlauquitepec, a pueblo (a settlement) southwest of Mexico City. He then moved to the barrios of the capital. He recalled,
I never really lived in the provinces, but I have a direct [indigenous] inheritance . . . Few times did I go to the pueblo as a child, but my grandparents would come [to the city] and bring with them all its history . . . This for me was the great fantasy of my childhood, and the themes in my work stem from there.
Fantasy was accompanied by affection for the natural world. Venegas relived the history of the Spanish Conquest through legends. He attended festivals, where hundreds of concheros—dancers—occupied his imagination with “the aroma of incense, songs, and chants, as the devil and death passing by, striking the people.”
After finishing his education at the National Fine Arts School in Mexico City (known as La Esmeralda), Venegas first completed a body of work that was based on his apprenticeship as a woodworker. As one biography recounts it, Venegas noticed the recurring theme of the lion in colonial art. He then conflated two historical events, the Spanish Conquest and the Mexican Revolution, making a mix of myth and history. Venegas explained, he “began with Zapata, with the legends, everything that was popular culture.” It was works like this that initially positioned Venegas in the context of Neo-Mexicanism, which is probably best described as a stylistic tendency rather than an actual movement.
Neo-Mexicanism was essentially a convenient label for a group of artists, who were born in the 50s and early 60s and whose artistic formation took place between 1968 and 1979. Olivier Debroise, the multinational art historian and critic, felt these artists opted for introspection and individual sincerity. Coincidentally their work began to appear during a rise in allegorical painting and expressionism, which came to prominence in the commercial Mexican art market during the 1980s—a particularly robust period of private and corporate patronage and cultural development.
In an exhaustive history of Neo-Mexicanism written in 2010 (Neo-Mexicanism: Mexican Figurative Painting and Patronage in the 1980s), Teresa Eckmann, Associate Professor of Art History at The University of Texas at San Antonio, put it differently. She wrote that “Neo-Mexicanist artists subtly critique and deconstruct official [Mexican] ideology and institutions . . . they were looking back [on 19th and 20th centuries], often with contempt.” In whatever manner the Neo-Mexicanists were defined 30+ years ago, Venegas and his cohorts were reassessing stereotypes, revealing “cultural artifice and fabrication.”
As the contemporary art market in Mexico took a down turn due to the Mexican peso crisis of December 1994, Venegas rejected identification as a Neo-Mexicanist. If anything, he was an individualist, and he abandoned “the iconography of national discourse.” By the 2000s, Venegas had begun to incorporate Asian—specifically Buddhist—philosophy and imagery into his work. This was in part a fusion of his identity, his nationality and his belief systems. Carlos Ashida Cueto—the late curator, cultural promoter, museographer, researcher and collector—wrote that Venegas’ work “distinguished itself from those of his contemporaries (postmodern parodies and pastiches emptied of their original content and impregnated with scepticism and irony) by the unmistakeable breath of authenticity it exhaled.“
Yes, Venegas’ work is deeply rooted in indigenous and Mexican cultures, but Ashida continued, “We stand before an artist who possesses his own universe, articulated in a rich and complex visual language that permits the sensitive spectator to easily identify the work product of his hand . . . Without nostalgia, free of any reactionary attachment to existing canons, with a vision avid of knowledge and always in touch with ancestral wisdom, Venegas looks back to where ‘the past carries within it a temporal trace which renders it subject to redemption’.”
Despite more recent largely misguided, editorial fabrications about the globalization of art, Venegas’ work is not broadly known. Part of this is circumstantial. There had been a heady market for Neo-Mexicanist art in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Mexican galleries pushed to develop a US market for their artists then. Prices escalated rapidly. With the devaluation of the peso in 1994, the Mexican art market seized-up. In a sense Venegas was a “victim” of price escalation and a financial crisis caused by capital flight. Hackneyed as it sounds, Venegas challenges traditional expectations about art. While stepping away from the commercial Mexican art market and operating outside it, he continues to explore a mix of the mythological, spiritual and divine with the earthbound and the historical and the everyday.
There are two ways to see this exhibition, but it is impossible to explain it all because of the complexity of themes and quantity of work. Both routes document the artist’s thoughts and activities about creating artworks that spiritually unify his indigenous cultural heritage and his practice of Zen Buddhism. If you enter the galleries on the lower-level, you first encounter Venegas’ transformative rendering of Titian’s masterpiece, Flaying of Marsyas, beginning with a near replica of the original before—gradually, over a series of 55 paintings—the image is reduced to a de Kooning-esque, total abstraction. Retitled El violin y la flauta (The Violin and the Flute) and completed between 2004 and 2008, the series is not merely an exercise in transformative seriality. Rather, given Venegas’ adoption of Buddhist teachings, he has stated that the series “denotes a process of detachment from the ego, and from frustration born from the deliberate quest for the perfect image.” Seated in the middle of the large gallery where the increasingly abstracted paintings are presented is one of his sculptures, a hand-carved Buddha, painted in tones of yellow-ochre and mauve. It quietly anchors the suite with calm, underscoring the artist’s motivation for making this series of paintings.
If you enter through the upper-level galleries, the head and halo of a hand-carved, hand-painted five-meter tall Bodhisattva (someone who has attained Buddha-hood) peers over the first gallery’s low wall, seemingly detached from its body. At the wall, looking down into the lower-level galleries, the remaining four meters of the Bodhisattva becomes visible. Entitled La forma es vacío y el vacío sólo forma (2000-02) (Form is Empty and Emptiness only Form)—the Bodhisattva is the centerpiece, a physical core, of the exhibition, unifying Venegas’ mythological works and his more mundane or earthly works on the lower level.
The upper-level galleries offer several series of work arranged thematically. The first room contains three paintings from the series Óxidos (Oxides, 1995-96), in which “mythological ideas and mixtures bring forth histories of race and identity, founded on canonical forms of representation.” To complete this series, Venegas studied “the work” of Apelles, a 4th century BCE Hellenistic artist, none of whose paintings survive. What is known about Apelles is largely from the anecdotes scribed by Pliny, the 1st century CE author and philosopher. (This is a rather remarkable story in itself.) Hence the work is nearly pure conceptualism. It is about an idea in art history, interpreted—if not realized or channeled—by Venegas.
Sculptures and drawings of Mexica deities and a wall with stylized Olmec heads leads into the following room. This room is dedicated to the Aztec god of rain and thunder, Tlaloc—(Nahuatl: “He Who Makes Things Sprout”)—who the artist has depicted in virtually all art media. The standing figures combines figuration with architecture-forms recalling step pyramids. They are surrounded by drawings, some near cartoons; others are vaguely architectural and still others pure black on white abstractions. The adjacent gallery features paintings of ascetics seeking enlightenment through meditation.
Returning to the thematically installed lower-level galleries, the first room contains representations of monkeys, reflecting the Buddhist proposition that the human mind behaves like a monkey, restlessly jumping from one thought to another. This gallery is also filled with woodcarvings of different animals: monkeys, jaguars, bats and serpents. The series Autorretratos (Self-portraits, 2006) exposes the artist’s interest in the fear of death and its pictorial representation both in religion and in art. In another series, using Velasquez’s La Venus del espejo (Venus at the Mirror [The Rokeby Venus], 1647-51) as his starting point, Venegas’ paintings are a reflection on self as much as they are a reflection on beauty where the artist unveils the essence and meaning of desire and sensuality.
In the 2005 catalog for Venegas’ exhibition Elucubraciones (Meditations), the artist Abraham Cruz Villegas commented,
From mystic ecstasy to hedonistic inebriation, from monastic contemplation to carnal fever, Venegas’ repertoire captivates the spectator, surrounding him and embracing him along passageways that are complemented with his craft and his tools. Tempera, oil painting, woodcarving, watercolor, charcoal and graffito give coherence to a project that surpasses the artwork as an object; German Venegas’ work is much more than that.
Germán Venegas. Todo lo otro (Everything Else) at Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City through March 31, 2019.