A two-story-high cutout of a masked Mexican wrestler holds a cup of coffee triumphantly aloft. Star Wars droid R2-D2 teeters while serving a pizza. A strangely calm butcher boils in a giant clay pot tended by a gigantic black pig. A grinning Bugs Bunny look-alike leeringly offers his own skinned carcass for your consumption. This is only a handful of the off-kilter hand-painted Pop images that proliferate on the walls, doors, trucks and improvised billboards — practically any vertical surface — of urban Mexico. Ranging from wonkily rendered versions of corporate logos to completely invented surrealist fantasias — and usually embodying an even more challenging hybrid of the two — the vernacular ideographic language of the itinerant sign painter offers both an inexhaustible cornucopia of visual delights and a profound challenge to our received notions about art, commerce, authorship and originality. That is, if you bother to look at it and consider it as art.
Two who have bothered are Mexico City–based curators Deborah Holtz and Juan Carlos Mena, whose six-years-in-the-making patchwork of original, re-created and documented street signage, “Sensacional! Mexican Street Graphics,” is making its first stopover in the U.S. at the Armory Center in Pasadena. An enveloping, almost overwhelming barrage of color and image, “Sensacional!” is like a less curatorially straitlaced version of such shows as the Fowler’s 2001 eye-boggling exhibit of hand-painted movie posters from Ghana, “Death-Stalking, Sleep-Walking, Barbarian Ninja Terminators.” After passing through the entryway full of outsized introductory banners and murals (including the aforementioned coffee wrestler), the visitor is confronted with two large rooms filled floor to ceiling with vivid, idiosyncratic renderings of every imaginable good or service.
The first room contains an enormous grid of paintings on 2-by-4-foot wooden surfaces assembled from scrap lumber — large and small appliances (I counted six different blenders), clothing, tools and various professionals practicing their trades: welders, glaziers, cobblers, athletes and entertainers. Another wall displays similar subjects rendered on corrugated fiberglass, while a third shows a series of cautionary cartoon silk-screen posters warning of the dangers of gossip, overspending and amputation. In the first of several peculiar installation strategies, photo documentation of actual in situ graphics are wedged against the floorboards. In the center of the floor are stacks of posters for sale — at $1 a pop, my Art Buy of the Week.
The second room contains more reproduced graphics, this time on canvas (some conventionally stretched and some hanging tapestry-like) plus high-quality photographic blowups. Here the subject matter covers foodstuff, fashion, funny (and not so funny) animals, and mamacitas — images of exaggerated archetypal femininity used to sell or promote just about anything. Peculiar installation strategy No. 2 consists of dozens of single-image slide viewers hanging in tangled monofilament skeins from the ceiling, each containing a documentary photo of the source paintings.
“Source paintings” is a key phrase, as all of the works included here are re-creations, either photographic or copied by Mexico City rotulistas (sign painters) expressly for this exhibit. Just thinking about trying to unravel the implications of such layered displacements makes my head hurt. Just for example, how is a professional artist producing iconic paintings of commercial products on stretched canvases for a small museum in Pasadena in 2004 different from Andy Warhol’s 1970 show at the Pasadena Art Museum? Happily, compared to most museum fare, folk-Pop shows often downplay the text panelage in recognition of the sheer sensory impact of the artworks, confident that the larger social, political and art-historical implications of the work will be apparent to interested parties.
That sensory impact at the Armory is enormous, and enormously pleasurable. Warhol chose his subjects (the soup cans if not the electric chairs) according to what people like to look at — which is deeper than it seems. Commercial design, over the course of the previous half-century, honed the manipulation of hard-wired consumer responses to a fine art. The bright colors and simple but eye-catching patterns of laundry-soap boxes and comic-book covers tread a fine line between the self-sufficient eye candy that makes infants (and some critics) gurgle happily and the alluring, covetousness-provoking cycle of consumer desire. Much of the genius of Warhol and the other Pop artists was to acknowledge this advertising technology and, by sleight of hand, transfer its allure to the rare- fied tax bracket of the art world. Like the best Pop Art, the graphics in “Sensacional!” cut through their own complex web of rationalization with joyous, iconic, idiosyncratically human reflections of the physical world.
The remainder of “Sensacional!” fleshes out the show’s central premise with collections of wrestling posters, educational monografia picture charts, fliers for strip clubs, covers of historieta comic books and packages for patent medicines such as Legitimate Powder of I Have You Tied Up and Nailed Down. Peculiar installation strategy goes into overdrive with the last two categories displayed in a narrow corridor with a series of distended, hanging plexiglass cubes containing peeling backlit transparencies. Across from this room is a new contender in my ongoing search for Lamest Simulator Ride Ever (closely rivaling the blurry slot-car dumpster by the Griffith Park pony rides): a triple video projection of a cab ride in Mexico City which you view from across the room in actual car seats. Awesome as this is, it fails to take any of one’s attention from the brimming reservoir of imagery that is the substance of “Sensacional!”
One of the oddest ideas at play here — even if it is Pasadena — is the one that attributes exoticism to this kind of painting, when you can find thousands of compelling examples on the Eastside or just by driving far enough down Beverly Boulevard. I personally know of at least four artists who regularly photograph their favorite hand-painted street graphics. Graphic styles and elements borrowed from Third World sign painters have been cropping up regularly in high-end graphic design for more than a decade. There’s a series of — ironically very badly designed — books by Barry Dawson documenting global street graphics, and at least one blue-chip artist — Donald Baechler — has based his entire career on mimicking the style. Nevertheless, the curators of “Sensacional!” are not wrong in presuming the persistence of this high-low gap.
Early in his career, on a road trip to L.A., Warhol had an epiphany. As he recounted in POPism: The Warhol ’60s, “The farther West we drove the more Pop everything looked on the highways. Suddenly we all felt like insiders because even though Pop was everywhere — that was the thing about it, most people took it for granted, whereas we were dazzled by it — to us it was the new Art. Once you ‘got’ Pop, you could never see a sign the same way again. And once you thought Pop, you could never see America the same way again.” Ideally, a show like “Sensacional!” functions (as does Pop and, when you get right down to it, all art) to open our eyes to the world, but it’s still a shorter, smoother journey for a painting of a burrito to wind up in a museum than it is for the average person to view the same image painted on a barrio wall as Art.
Sensacional! Mexican Street Graphics | At the Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; (626) 792-5101 | Through February 15