MEX/LA: Mexican Modernism(s) in Los Angeles 1930-1985

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Last week , I continued my pursuit of the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, this one in Long Beach at the Museum of Latin American Art. Their show on Mexican Modernisms in L.A. from 1930 to 1985

” reminded me of the resigned if amusing cliché: "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States." (Pobre Mexico. Tan lejos del Dios, tan circa Los Estados Unidos.)


This show, organized by artist Rubén Ortiz-Torres with Jesse Lerner, captures the complex relationship between the cultures on either side of the border in a fresh and compelling way beginning with the position that, prior to 1847, Los Angeles WAS Mexico. L.A.'s Mexican culture is less an alien import than something that originated in the city. As such the influence has long cut north and south amidst artists, architects and musicians. As essays in the catalog point out Frank Zappa borrowed a Chicano pseudonym for his album Ruben & The Jets in 1968. Mexican author Octavio Paz conceptualized The Labyrinth of Solitude while living in L.A. The list goes on.  

Jose Clemente Orozco, Prometheus,
1930, central panel - 20 x 28.5 ft.
© Courtesy of the Artist and Pomona College Museum of Art

The show includes work by the big names: José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siquieros, who painted murals in L.A. Diego Rivera did not but the show includes fascinating film stills documenting his paintings hung in the interiors of scenes from Nicholas Ray's 1950 In a Lonely Place and other films. In conservative L.A., the muralists association with Communism, which led the Siquieros mural to be whitewashed shortly after its unveiling, meant that the very presence of Rivera's work in film was a subversive gesture on the part of the director.

In fact, it is the popular culture aspect of the exhibition that proves to be most revealing. The show includes animated Disney shorts showing the influence of Mexican culture such as The Three Caballeros, where Donald Duck dances with the filmic señioritas and clips from the Spanglish-speaking Speedy Gonzalez.


Robert Stacy-Judd, Destruction of Atlantis, 1936
Robert Stacy-Judd Papers, Architecture and Design Collection
University Art Museum, Santa Barbara

In the realm of architecture, there are elaborate drawings by Robert Stacey-Judd, an English architect who incorporated Mayan and Aztec elements into his designs for buildings as fantasies of lost civilizations such as the 1925 Aztec Hotel in Monrovia. Frank Lloyd Wright's Mayan-influenced residences are featured in Julius Shulman photographs as well as a film on the Day of the Dead ceremonies by Charles and Ray Eames.

The show's organizers contest the purity often associated with the international style modernism and offer an alternative modernism, a hybrid of high and low, informed and naïve, monied and impoverished, thriving in the chaos of L.A. 

Graciela Iturbide, Cholas, White Fence, East L.A., 1986
Courtesy of Museum of Latin American Art

In the 1960s, the civil rights movement led young Mexican-American artists, Chicanos, to respond with their own view of the cultural relationships by imposing their personal style on fashion, music and cars – a pink and floral low-rider by Jesse Valadez Sr. greets visitors to the show. And, yes, street art.


Chaz Bojórquez, El Vato Loco, 1985
Oil on canvas
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Gift of Stuart Spence and Judy Vida-Spence, 2004.105

The show includes graffiti paintings by Chaz Bojorquez, large scale realist drawings by muralist John Valadez and a painting protesting the censorship of her mural, whitewashed by the CRA, by Barbara Carrasco. Photographs East L.A. life by Harry Gamboa Jr. track this movement, which ricocheted back to Mexico and influenced artists there. A large woven U.S. flag with a trio of Virgins of Guadalupe instead of stars by Adolpho Patiño came about after the Mexican artist's first stay in L.A.


Adolfo Patiño, Project for the Flag of a Mexican Colony, 1987
Woven wool with embroidery
National Hispanic Cultural Center
On loan from the collection of Ray Graham II

This embrace of the swinging and swaying of cultural interchange makes for interesting reading in the catalog, especially the essays by Ortiz-Torres and Lerner. A chronology that runs from 1781 to 1988 adds a fresh dimension to scholarship on the subject.

Banner image: Chaz Bojórquez, Placa/Rollcall, 1980; Acrylic on canvas; Smithsonian American Art Museum; Gift of the artist