Looking past the fence and into the City

A peculiar blown-up map of the world covers an entire wall of what serves as both the lobby and first display room of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla. The United States literally stands out from the map, built of galvanized steel, plastered with pink glitter and covered in a huge blown-glass web of pinto beans and snakes filled with gold coins. In the center, what looks like a cross between a vulva and a holy altar gives birth to a flying brigade of plastic butterflies, which closer inspection reveals to be carrying miniature Christs on crosses. As they float over the room, through a hallway, and nearly out the window to the ocean, the butterflies morph into fighter planes — according to artists Einar and Jamex de la Torre, this symbolizes a dangerous export. The piece, richly layering sharp critique and outrageous humor, is a proper introduction to “Strange New World: Art and Design from Tijuana.”

All Photos Courtesy of MCASD
Father figure: Alvaro Blancarte, one of Tijuana’s first important artists, whose studio served as a classroom for younger generations, painted himself as part pig (above). Much of the exhibit is devoted to architectural and design pieces, such as Hugo Crosthwaite’s work (below).

With 150 pieces from 41 artists, it’s the largest show the museum has ever hosted — and the first to spread from La Jolla to the museum’s downtown branch. For this relatively new scene, which sprouted in the 1970s and flourished in the ‘90s in a city with no art school, far from the artistic magnet of Mexico City, such recognition this side of the border is also a first. Not surprisingly, the border is a recurring demon in Tijuana artists’ work — in one piece, it’s mixed-media collages of pulp-comic frontier cowboys; in a series of 3-D photo collages, walls, fences, various barriers and police are enclosed in broken picture frames.

Yet a sign warns guests that not all Tijuana art is about the border. This is a valid disclaimer; the border is far from fencing these artists in. The rapidly changing city itself claims much of the artists’ interest, with a marked emphasis on architecture, design and urban planning (or lack thereof). But there’s innovation aplenty: Oficinia 3, a pair of architects, display photos of a house they designed with 40 percent recycled materials, using the backbone of a conveyor belt as a staircase, while Teddy Cruz, who also teaches in the UCSD visual arts department, offers model low-cost homes. One photographer shows grim Tijuana maquiladoras, while others capture Tijuana residents in their time, among them proud shopkeepers and nightclub patrons. Changing culture is likewise on display in “The Altar of Live News” by Felipe Almada, with Bart Simpson as the centerpiece surrounded by traditional cheap trinkets, news clippings and a super-sized hamburger.

And nowhere is this strange new world more vividly personified than in painter Benjamin Serrano, who raises the nation’s past in his giant, two-panel work “La Malinche,” where he portrays himself as a transgender version of the translator who helped Cortés conquer Mexico. Historically, the actual La Malinche has been interpreted in turn as martyr and traitor, and this ambivalence is exacerbated by a character painted naked on a toilet throne, facing a skeleton in a handheld mirror while Pepsi logo-sporting Aztec warriors and Western knights ride into battle on either side, mounted on toy horses and wielding brooms. Today, brutality lives on in border life, but the multiplicity of Tijuana’s brave new art suggests a frontier city just waking up to the innovative potential of sitting at a crossroads world.

“Strange New World” will be on display through Sept. 3 at MCASD La Jolla and Sept. 17 at MCASD downtown.