How I Discovered that Mexican Muralism Started in my Hometown

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I spent my whole childhood in Claremont and never realized the first US mural by Jose Clemente Orozco was painted just down the street from where I lived.

Every Thanksgiving break I visit my family in Claremont, California. My hometown is a small city on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains with a population of around 35,000 people. Mostly known for the Claremont Colleges, and warmly referred to as the "city of trees and PHDs", this town was once a vast citrus grove.

I was excited to visit during this holiday break because "Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA" was taking place in over 70 art institutions across Southern California, including Claremont. Exploring the Latin American experience and arts dialogue with Los Angeles, this multi-location exhibition spans from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, and Santa Barbara to San Diego (Exhibition run: September 2017-January 2018).

Among the galleries and museums my parents and I visited, the Pomona College Museum of Art had the a striking show entitled "Prometheus 2017" showcasing four artists from Mexico revisiting the work of Orozco, which led us to discover an original Orozco mural on campus that was over 80 years old.

Just a short walk through the campus revealed the first Orozco mural in the United States, entitled "Prometheus" completed in 1930 in Pomona College's Frary Dining Hall. This marks in history the first mural completed in the United States by one of Los Tres Grandes, Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The Mexican mural movement in the United States can, thus, be said to have begun in Claremont.

Post revolutionary Mexican Muralism was a tool for social justice and civic engagement, and was often funded by the government to instill feelings of utopia and civic pride. By the end of the 1920s, patronage had dwindled and muralists moved north to seek work in the United States.

In the late 1920s Orozco was selected to paint the mural within the newly built Frary dining hall by the architect Sumner Spaulding and Professor of Hispanic civilization and art history José Pijoán. Pijoan arranged for Orozco to do the fresco for $2,000.  Orozco agreed, and decided to create a mural based on the Greek myth of the titan Prometheus.  According to Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the Greek gods and gave it to humanity on Earth.  For this act, he was eternally punished by Zeus, who directed his eagle to eat Prometheus’ liver every day (the liver regenerated itself every day, only to be eaten by the eagle again).  Orozco chose this myth to be the subject of his mural to represent enlightenment and knowledge in place of learning.

It is interesting to think that those who first encountered the historically significant mural were students in an all-male dining hall at a prestigious private college. The students also noticed that a part of the male anatomy was missing, and a number of articles in the student paper discussed this. Initially, Orozco painted Prometheus without genitals and it is unclear whether it was his own decision or pressure from the college’s board of trustees.  Three months after he completed the work, he returned to Claremont on his way to New York and commented “you know, I regret I have not finished Prometheus himself.  He lacks the natural organs the figure should have.”  Orozco, who had his paints with him on the trip, decided to complete the mural by adding Prometheus’ genitals.  The subject of male nudity was controversial at the time and is still a topic today when discussing an artist’s vision and integrity.   

Discovering the masterwork "Prometheus", just a few miles from my childhood home, showed me that there are always hidden treasures within your city to be found.

A Peek Into The City That Inspires The Best of Creativity

I traveled across the world to a tiny collection of islands off the eastern coast of Italy to see one of the most important international contemporary art fairs. After a series of flights, water taxi rides, and a long walk through the winding city of lagoons and bridges, I made it to my destination: The 2017 Venice Biennale.

The idea of a destination international art exhibition came about in 1893 among a small circle of artists and art lovers at the Café Florian in Piazza San Marco.  Led by then Mayor Riccardo Selvatico, a proposal was put forward that in April 1895, Venice would open an international exhibition of the fine arts to be continued biennially. 122 years later, the Venice Biennale is still the most significant international contemporary art exhibition in the world.

This year marks the 57th International Art Exhibition, entitled "VIVA ARTE VIVA" and curated by the French Curator of the Centre Pompidou Christine Macel (and the 4th woman to ever curate this exhibition). In addition to the fair's curator of the group shows, each participating country selects a curator for their own national pavilion.

Every other year, the massive exhibition kicks off in early May and continues through the close of November. A $25 Euro ticket ($28.50 US dollars) allows you to power through the Giardini and Arsenale venues, which includes 120 artists from 51 countries.

As an artist myself, I found the Venice Biennale deeply personal in illuminating the pulse of contemporary art around the world.  I operate FLAX Studio, a workshop and showroom space designed to shed light on emerging creative talent in San Antonio.  As a result, I am constantly looking to the top global exhibitions for guidance.  I also participate in San Antonio's two largest monthly art walks every First Friday and Second Saturday in the Southtown Arts District. I often find myself studying art and cultural hubs throughout the world, including New York, Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, Mexico City, and Barcelona. This week, I discovered Venice, Italy.

Day 1: The Giardini

My family and I arrived at the Giardini gates on the eastern tip of the island at 10 am sharp, to ensure we were the first ones inside the shaded garden area to explore some of the original pavilions created: Belgium, Hungry, Great Britain, Germany, France, Greece, Israel, United States among others. This year the German Pavilion artist Anne Imhof won the Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion, so we immediately got in line to enter. After a 15-minute wait outside the space, with 2 Doberman Pinschers closely watching us from behind a small gate that surrounded the pavilion, we were allowed entry. Ominous tones filled the room of glass and steel structures, with blank faced actors writhing on the floor. 

 

Almost as impressive as the artworks displayed are the buildings in which they are housed. Each is uniquely designed to reflect the country's sensibilities at the time of creation - often stylistically at odds with the contemporary work inside. For example, the neo-classical French Pavilion housed a minimal unfinished wood interior installation that felt as though you were stepping inside of an acoustic guitar, viewing its architecture from the interior and experiencing the sound from within. The space was replete with fictional and non-fictional instruments and a recording studio to be used periodically by guest artists throughout the run. 

The oppressive Venetian summer heat is only remedied by thought provoking art in chilled pavilions, standing in the breezeway of a lagoon and visiting one of the booths selling savory pastries, coffee and cold spirits. After about 7 hours, we hit our art saturation point for the day and took a water taxi to our Airbnb for an afternoon nap.

Day 2: The Arsenale

In stark contrast with the Giardini, with its lush garden area dotted with a mix of renaissance, gothic, and victorian architecture, is the portion of the Venice Biennale called the Arsenale. Within the Arsenale, a collection of shipyards with touches of byzantine style architecture, the art exhibition is housed within two large warehouses. Originally constructed to produce the naval power of Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries, the biennale’s Arsenal building (1104) is the largest pre-industrial production center of the world. Made long ago from wood, bricks, and iron, the space is well suited for contemporary art installations.

The artwork exhibited in the group show seemed to have a synergy and power that the isolated pavilions lacked. The Arsenale was organized in 9 conceptual chapters including: Artists and Books, Joys and Fears, Common, Earth, Traditions, Shamans, Dionysius, Colors, Time and Infinity. The mix of installation, sculpture, painting, photography, video, sound and light captured the overarching theme of humanism.  

"Art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human, at a time when humanism is precisely jeopardized. Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions." - Christine Macel, Curator of the 57th International Art Exhibition

Day 3: Satellite Shows

For those of us with an insatiable appetite for art, there are always satellite shows specifically installed during the Venice Biennale flight. Of the hundreds of unofficial shows available, the two that came highly recommended and that I was able to visit were at the Punta Della Dogana and Palazzo Fortuny.

The Punta Della Dogana was the original Sea Customs House for Venice until French billionaire François Pinault came along and purchased the estate from the city and transformed it into a world class contemporary art space including a cafe and gift shop. Originally built by Architect Giuseppe Benoni in 1682, it continued to be used until the 1980s when it was abandoned and left in disrepair for 20 years. In 2007, the Pinault Collection restored the historic space to be a slick contemporary art museum under the direction of architect Tadao Ando. In 2009, the foundation opened its doors to the public and has programmed exhibitions in congruency with the Venice Biennale. This year featured a solo exhibition in two locations (Punta Della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi ) by Damien Hirst entitled "Treasures from The Wreck of The Unbelievable.” The massive show of video installation, sculpture and photography tells the fictional tale of an ancient wreck and the discovered precious cargo. One of the most impressive pieces was a monumental sculpture of a woman encrusted with intricate filigrees of colorful coral – all completely made of bronze. Noted as his most ambitious and complex project to date, this show took almost 10 years to complete. His work traverses contemporary belief systems and ancient myth, leaving you lusting for lost treasure.

The Fortuny Museum was the former residence and atelier of the famed Spanish artist and intellectual Mariano Fortuny. Donated to the city in 1956 by his widow Henriette, the museum now hosts exhibitions that coincide with the Venice Biennale. This year showcased a multi artist show titled "Intuition" co-produced and curated by the Vervoordt Foundation. The space uniquely feels like a living cabinet of curiosities filled with an eclectic mix of prehistoric artifacts from Africa, scientific journals of greats including Galileo, and modern and contemporary art. Moving throughout the space I was unable to distinguish Fortuny's household treasures from the temporarily installed work without the help of the paper guide. I found myself sitting on his couch reading one of his library books sitting beneath THE Duchamp bearded Mona Lisa. I experienced communion with art in a new and intimate manner.

Thank you, Venice; you are truly a city that inspires the best of creativity!

 

My First Global Art Fair

"Support" by Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn
"Giardini Colourfull" by UK artist Ian Davenport
"Faust" by German artist Anne Imhof

Next week, I will be in Italy visiting the 57th Venice Biennale, entitled "Viva Arte Viva." This fair has been top of my art list ever since I was a child, as it is one of the world's most renowned and visited fairs bringing in around 500,000 each year during its 6 month run. 

This year there are 86 national pavilions to explore throughout the Giardini, the Arsenale and in the historic city centre. The curators are chosen by their country, and craft a unique experience with their selected artist(s) within their designated space. I was glad to hear that of the 120 total artists this year, 103 of them are first time participants in the Biennale. Nothing like scoping out the up and coming visual art talent of the world!

I am also thrilled to be visiting the year that Christine Macel, chief curator of the Pompidou Center in Paris, is the fourth female curator in the Biennale’s 122-year history. Because I am always interested in the business side of art, I found that the budget for her international exhibition is 13 million euros (about $14.2 million), of which Macel had to help raise 10 percent. 

My only hope is that I make it through all 86 "mini museums" of the 57th Venice Biennale...

Stay tuned for a personal account! 

arts + politics

What Does The Future Hold For Arts In America?

It’s been 100 days since Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America. Since his term began, he has threatened to cut an array of domestic programs -  among them arts, humanities and public media. As an arts advocate and employee of a non-profit media source, I am weary of what the future may bring.

In 1965 Lyndon B Johnson signed into effect the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities ensuring that "arts and humanities belong to all people of the United States" and recognizing the need to "achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future." Since his time, a number of former presidents have threatened to cut the endowments, but none have succeeded.....until potentially now. It is the president's job to propose the budget, contingent on the approval of Congress.

So how much are we talking? The combined total of both endowments is about $300 million - that is under 1% of the 1.1 trillion dollar total annual discretionary spending. Individually, each endowment makes up approximately .004% of the total federal budget.

What does defunding the NEA, NEH and Corporation for Public Broadcasting signal to our communities? It would represent closing the door on celebrating human expression, and halt potential progress. Art is what makes us human after all. Federal funding does not typically cover the cost of a project, but it is important seed money that legitimizes fundraising initiatives and works as a call to action for the local public and private sector to join in. Thus, federal funding for arts, culture and media is critical for the health of an organization. NEA grants improve access to the arts and humanities in low-income and rural communities, thus playing a significant role in small, culturally specific organizations, often the most in need.