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Nuevo Cool

Alida Cervantes, The Housekeeper Series (1999)

In Hugo Crosthwaite’s pencil-and-charcoal drawings of his native Tijuana, the city’s lumpy landscape of shanties grows from an ashen earth lacking order or logic. Fragments of sites and buildings are shoved upon one another, broken by ghostly smudges of black and blacked-out asymmetrical billboards. Floating words evoking graffiti are stamped across the drawings like abandoned signals from forgotten business deals. Pirated power lines tangle across the skyline.

Among the works in “Strange New World: Art and Design From Tijuana,” which just opened at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Crosthwaite’s drawings capture an undercurrent of ambiguity that hovers over recent culture-chic interest in Tijuana. Detailed and realistic, “The Border: Tijuana Cityscapes” are nonetheless devoid of people or any sign of life; they are bleak and colorless. So, while the landscapes depicted in them remind me of the Tijuana I knew growing up with a complete and intimate border-crossing fluidity, their absence of life left me feeling suspicious about the general inquiry at hand: Is Tijuana really a post-NAFTA “cultural mecca”?

“Strange New World” is convinced that it is. As the city has transformed before our eyes from a cobbled town at the edge of the wide-open West into a thriving but dangerous international hub of manufacturing and narcotics, Tijuana is now being bombarded from all sides with bloated theorizing on how it has become a postmodern vision of the globalized future. This exhibition is but the culmination of several in recent years with this central premise: Tijuana is the new cool. In this pushy way, “Strange New World” essentially tells the visitor that Tijuana is trendy, here’s some art to prove it, and you will like it. The accompanying literature even argues that the culture of experimentation in the misread metropolis is on par with previous waves of art making in New York City. Well. That’s certainly an enterprising outlook to have of oneself.

That said, if a viewer of “Strange New World” is willing and able to look past the bells and whistles and approach the artworks independently for their individual merits, he’ll find that the art is for the most part strong, and that much of it has a more cohesive and practical unity than the simple label of “Made in Tijuana.”

This is because the work is mostly contemporary. In restaging the show, which was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (where I first saw it), SMMOA declined to mount pieces made in the period before the maquiladoras arrived. Most of the work shown here is made by artists born after 1965, when the Border Industrialization Program brought the first transnational manufacturing operations to the Tijuana region. These artists grew up watching the corresponding changes, the oozing of Tijuana into unplanned shanties on the ridges and hills that bloom away from the city’s old core. They’ve seen the city generate a culture of rascuache can-do-isms: staircases made out of old tires, homemade lowriders mashed together from junk, and so on.

USC professor (and Weekly contributor) Josh Kun, who is working on a book about Tijuana, refers to this phenomenon as the city’s “emergency aesthetic of improvisation and recycling.” So in the show, you have architect Teddy Cruz’s models for flexible and mass-produced “Manufactured Sites,” and Mely Barragán’s monos mofle (muffler men) assemblages from auto-body shops. The emergency aesthetic is translated into abstraction by Jaime Ruiz Otis and his “Trademarks” engravings, mechanized prints made with discarded maquiladora cutting boards, resulting in frenetic abstract panoramas.

These artists also grew up with the first home video-game systems and with television programming from both the U.S. and Mexico. That much is evident in the work of Daniel Ruanova, a dazzler from Mexicali, whose Bastón del Capitán América consists of a Transformers-like machine gun hung from the gallery ceiling and adorned with colorful plastic toy pieces, the kind you can load up on at 99-cent stores. Below it hangs a Ruanova painting, an obsessively layered Nintendo nightmare: splashes of pixelated neon globs and remnants of superhero tools and related techno dark matter.

Because Tijuana must still contend with its disdainful cultural stepparents, Mexico City and Los Angeles, a few works in “Strange New World” subtly respond to the misconception that TJ has no sophisticated elite. Yvonne Venegas’ photographs of “The Most Beautiful Brides of Baja California” are the border-region versions of Daniela Rossell’s celebrated series of photos of the criminally wealthy doyennes and heiresses of Mexico City, “Ricas y Famosas.” Rossell’s work is more like portraiture while Venegas’ is more documentary. One especially striking image, Érika y sus amigas, shows four clearly well-off women in jeans, high heels and flowing blouses, with two of them walking away from the camera in a big outdoor space that looks typically tijuanense: a scratchy-looking unpaved driveway.

The show’s hefty bilingual catalog is crammed with verbose essays on how interesting and postmodern Tijuana is. Which is fine, but if Tijuana’s cultural cheerleaders were really confident in its tag as “cultural hot spot,” you wonder why they feel the need to repeat it as much as they do. And they repeat it a lot. The problem is that the compulsion to constantly defend Tijuana’s cultural pedigree is clearly meant to counterweigh the overwhelming worldwide impression that the city is a crass and “culture”-less urban disaster zone with no face and no history. That’s almost like staging an exhibition about Los Angeles and saying, “L.A. is more than Hollywood.” Tijuana is similar to most thriving world cities of today; it supports both high culture and abject poverty, and is beginning to feel a lot like every other major urban center.

What sets Tijuana apart, however, is that it’s still very new, maturing as an urban space only within the last few decades. And in Tijuana, home of the busiest international border crossing in the world, where a majority of visiting tourists are actually Mexicans living in the U.S., dollars are as easily traded as Mexican pesos. Most significantly, drug trafficking is ingrained in the city’s economic infrastructure and daily life. This curiosity of Tijuana’s identity is the big, yawning absence in “Strange New World.” No. Worse, it is the show’s dark joke. Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rohn, long implicated in organized crime, actually provides a foreword to the catalog.

I don’t know how conscious or connected Tijuana’s elite artists are to the city’s unofficial central industry, but it’s not surprising that as presented in “Strange New World,” they ignore in their work the daily carnage of narco-related killings that keep most of Tijuana’s citizens living in perpetual fear. But then, if I were an artist in Tijuana who prefers avoiding threats of assassination, I would probably do the same. But I wonder if Tijuana art will truly break through only when its cultural workers become willing to deal with their city’s demons.

Nevertheless, the show closes with a piece that makes a compelling metaphorical argument for the city’s cultural maturity. For the 2004 project dubbed “The Region of the Transborder Trousers,” the art-and-design collective Torolab had five people wear a global positioning system on their pants. Torolab tracked the trousers’ wearers, recording their movements and fuel consumption. On a low topographical model of the L.A.–San Diego–Tijuana–Ensenada–Mexicali region, the tracks of the five trousers are reproduced with slow-moving yellow lines that follow the activity of the subjects among the cities. The trousers appear to be constantly migrating across the border’s typography, but the lines and their blinking orbits start in and always return to Tijuana.

STRANGE NEW WORLD: Art and Design From Tijuana/EXTRAÑO NUEVO MUNDO: Arte y Diseño Desde Tijuana | Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station G1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | (310) 586-6488 | Through April 7

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