The hand-painted storefront ads that cover the walls of old Mexican towns are beautiful and melancholy, nostalgia-inducing and photogenic testaments to the family businesses and vernacular creative flourishes of small trade history. And they are disappearing. Whether by operations of time and weather or destruction in the name of supposed progress, these homespun wall paintings are becoming not only a lost art, but simply lost.
From hand-rendered brand logos for Nestlé and the ubiquitous Coca-Cola, to home-spun postings for mechanic shops, business hours, and taco spots, there is something irresistible about the flaking, crumbling layers of color, the previous images and text poking through, the integration into eclectic architectures, and the way the aging surfaces communicate the weight of the decades they’ve witnessed, and the traces of the hands that painted them.
While artists have chronicled in photographs and representational paintings their compelling, palimpsestic aesthetics and the layers of historical social insight they offer, artist Alfredo Romero takes a more direct approach to saving these walls — science-based conservation, careful removal, and proper preservation. The new exhibition of these “wall works” in Vestiges of Our Times at Simard Bilodeau Contemporary presents a suite of these colorful, richly textured tableaux — not paintings of the old walls, but archeological segments of the walls themselves.
Using an anthropological/archeological technique called strappo, Romero and his team of artisans and experts undertake painstaking processes to preserve, protect, and remove the skins of the painted walls; it’s basically the same way street art from Haring to Banksy and frescoes from more ancient eras are routinely rescued by institutional efforts. But Alfredo lavishes these transcendent attentions on these most common of populist treasures, the theory being that if he doesn’t they’ll either deteriorate or be destroyed, and this way, they enjoy a long life as the precious and engaging works of art they are.
All of this would be enough context to enjoy the evocative, mysterious hybrid of Pop and Abstract Expressionism on view. But Romero does not actually stop there. While he doesn’t intervene to recreate the deteriorated passages of the fragile skins, he occasionally adds the simplest of painted gesture or shape to complete the new meaning of a deracinated section. Notably, his augmented scritti are impossible to distinguish from other graffiti on the original walls, and provide a final note to complete the transformation into contemporary art. The most charming of these interventions is the application of gold leaf to ruptures and seams in the original — adding elevated sparkle and a hint of preciousness, while at the same time, doing double duty a la the “precious scars” ceramics practice of Kintsugi, using the fissures to create both beauty and enhance structural integrity and archival strength.
In a further deep dive, Romero seeks out the once and present business owners and their families, to hear their personal stories about the business, what came before, who made the signs perhaps, and where they are now. In this way, his work with the walls not only represents an anthropology of art and a collaboration with the past, but sparks the literal enactment of this dynamic in documentary film form.
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Simard Bilodeau Contemporary, 1923 S. Santa Fe Ave., downtown; Tuesday – Friday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. & Saturday, 11:30 a.m. – 6 p.m., through May 29; free.