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ZsONAMACO 2018: Women on the Verge

Artists and art collectives commanding attention around the Mexico City art fair

Alongside its main event, ZsONAMACO hosts a series of parallel activities which invite attendees to explore Mexico City‘s fortuitous gallery scene and meet those who set the local standard for art and design throughout the rest of the year. It’s a far more intimate experience, and one that seems to be overshadowed by the industry party at the edge of town. Future guests take note: ZsONAMACO’s parallel programming is not only a fantastic map of discovery that guides you into the depths of CDMX, but actually the reason the festival is here at all.

There is a trope which neatly complements this relationship: that behind every successful man, stands a great woman. It should be as outmoded as it sounds, but it’s undeniable that women still find themselves in roles of support rather than leadership in almost all industries including art. With this in mind, we look toward some of the exhibitions featured in this parallel programming which highlight women on the verge of visibility, of relationship, and of greatness.

Parque Galleria: “Strong Female Lead” by Camel Collective

Presented by Parque Galleria, which represents Camel Collective, “Strong Female Lead” takes its name from the condescending idea that the gender of the protagonist in a narrative is only defined when it is a woman taking the role. While acknowledging the literal gender gap in film and theater, the exhibition also explores the invisible and oft-unrecognized work supporting production performed by both men and women by likening it metaphorically to the immaterial labors generally designated to women in society. In one video, titled “Something Other Than What You Are,” a lighting technician laments about her expendability as a contracted worker despite her critical role in the industry. A lighting designer, played by the same actress, explains the necessity of using color and shadow to seamlessly transport the audience from reality into the world of the play in a way that keeps the audience, saying, “If all goes well, they won’t even notice you.”

“Strong Female Lead” also examines its theme through sculpture, photography, and painting throughout the gallery, leaving evidence of “women’s work” to be discovered or ignored. Hands are disembodied; paintings are so small and delicate, that they require intention to study them. In this way, Camel Collective makes its audience work as well, giving it an opportunity to reflect on labor that cannot be defined by physical construction.

House of GAGA: “Mothers of Men” by Moyra Davey, R.H. Quaytman, Vivian Suter

The story begins in Athens, where Moyra Davey, R.H. Quaytman, and Vivian Suter met serendipitously, relating over their individual artistic practices and, as the exhibition title suggests, the fact that they are all mothers of now-grown men. After going their separate ways, the three artists began a year-long correspondence, sending each other art, drug-fueled confessions, and ephemera, each infiltrating and influencing the others’ creative practices along the way. The result is this show, selected to celebrate House of GAGA’s 10th anniversary.

The artists, who are independently well-established in their own right with a lifetime of recognition, are fairly unrelated in medium, technique, and resulting product. Davey concentrates on photography, chronicling memories by piecing together multiple prints. Suter exists on the other side of the spectrum, focusing on abstract painting on unstretched canvas inspired by her environment, often draped and hung throughout her exhibition spaces. Quaytman serves as a bit of an intermediary, using photographic, silkscreen, and painting techniques to create abstract mixed-media collages. But presented together here at GAGA, it becomes obvious how the three women adapted toward each other during this correspondence despite producing work from afar. In this way they become mothers again, giving birth to this spectacular show.

MAIA Contemporary: “Attached to Nothing, Connected to Everything” by Olivia Steele

At ZsONAMACO 2018, Olivia Steele‘s work is everywhere. Her instantly iconic neon installations draw the curated Instagrammer’s eye, making Steele’s artwork a self-propelling publicity machine. Her perfectly cheeky (and often New Age-y) expressions may come off to some as a spectacle of profundity, but it would be too easy to dismiss Steele for this reason. Just because one has hit culture right on the nose with an extremely sellable concept (Steele self-describes as making “Word Porn”) does not make the artist any less serious in their craft.

In fact, Steele is both highly perceptive and deliberate when making her art. She tailors her installations to their environment, using both the access and limitations each place gives her to her advantage. At MAIA Contemporary, for instance, Steele incorporates Mexican street signage, affects, and idioms as an homage to her host country, a gesture not frequently made by the average touring artist. Steele also literalizes turns of phrase, placing the words “Risk” and “Reward” on a scale, for instance, or trapping “Desire” in a cage, turning the semiotic into the tangible. Her work is often contradictory in its own right, making the morbid delightful with color, or displaying feelings of distress or malaise in a manner that can literally be described as brilliant. It’s for these reasons that Steele has already been asked to exhibit across the globe, and it’s only a matter of time before you will encounter one of her pieces yourself.

Proyecto Paralelo: “Fake and Farce” by Melanie Smith

Flemish Grotesque painters Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder have inspired many artists, from choreographer Martha Clarke’s theatrical masterpiece, “Garden of Earthly Delights,” based on the eponymous tryptic by Bosch, to Nicolas Roeg’s famous sci-fi flick, “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” which uses Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” for reference. For Melanie Smith, Bosch and Bruegel the Elder are fodder for her “Obsuridades Bucólicas,” a performance art piece in which she recreates the disturbing atmosphere spawned by the two artists in a series of tableaux vivants executed and recorded via security camera over the course of three months in 2017. Each scene is the collaborative result of local seamstresses, set designers, actors, and musicians, making the series a true display of community engagement and effort.

At Proyecto Paralelo, footage from both performance and the production work behind the scenes is displayed across seven screens, placing the audience in the position of voyeur. The footage is composed by color while disregarding linear time, reflecting the enduring importance of her 15th and 16th century references. Each security camera only catches glimpses of action, paying tribute to the chaotic nature of Bosch and Bruegel the Elder’s work, in which you must scrutinize every detail in order to absorb the whole. In conjunction with the video installation is Smith’s own Grotesque paintings, with unsettling scenes made naked by negative space. In this way she turns time backward and asks what her Flemish artists would do if they were using Smith’s video work for inspiration instead.

All images by Gabrielle Garcia except the “Strong Female Lead” screenshot, courtesy of the artists’ gallery


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