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Down Mexico Way 

A new CMA exhibit proves America isn't the only country good at reinventing itself.

The exhibit Mexican Prints at the Cleveland Museum of Art provides a rare glimpse into the expressive arsenals of mid-century Mexican artists who transferred the raw material of their country's history into myth. They sought to give voice to new stirrings within the populace, and when they misfire, it's never because their political message is cloudy. They misfire, instead, when the political message is too clear. Thankfully, though, the didactic element of this exhibit--its promotion of greater cultural awareness--only occasionally overshadows the work itself.

Much as American Civil War buffs are drawn to Shiloh and Appomattox as if by a mysterious gravitational pull, the artists in Mexican Prints, most of whom lived through the Mexican revolution of 1910, set out to creatively refashion their history--and use it as an anchor in a world filled with uncontrollable movement and change. Assistant curator Shelley R. Langdale places the issue of creative transformation front and center, arranging the prints so that historical themes meld imperceptibly into more personal subject matter--which then finds its grounding in history again. Consequently, the temptation to look for the easy moral in this nuanced show is to risk misunderstanding the story.

There are about a hundred etchings, lithographs, woodcuts, and linocuts here, all created between the 1920s and the 1950s and all culled from the private collection of New Yorkers Reba and Dave Williams. As with so much Mexican art, these modest works generate an appearance of artlessness which disguises their intricate design. Included are pieces by giants such as Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros (the triumvirate of Mexican muralism), along with the prolific, eclectic Rufino Tamayo. These hardy individualists, while attempting to put revolutionary history in a nutshell so that it could be readily understood by an uneducated public (usually via gritty verisimilitude), nevertheless managed to produce prints that feature frequent flights of fantasy--everything from anthropomorphic trees to animated parts of the human anatomy.

Sometimes, these artists breathe life into the decaying legacies of legendary historical figures. Rivera's 1932 lithograph "Zapata" shows the revolutionary and agrarian leader holding the bit of a horse and leading a group of peasants against rich land owners. The triangle formed by Zapata's outstretched arm and the horse's head is echoed by the compact, triangular grouping of the peasants behind the leader, whose head also serves as the apex of several converging triangles. Such angularity is contrasted with the rounded shape of Zapata's weapon, the coil of rope at the horse's side, and the curvy foliage in the background. It's a populist and frankly anarchistic outlook on the revolution. Zapata, Rivera seems to be telling us, is most in his element when he remains close to his men. This is a Zapata in touch with the people and their fundamental needs.

A very different Zapata reflecting another substrain of the Mexican imagination is to be found in Ignacio Aguirre's 1949 linocut "Emiliano Zapata, the Great Leader of the Revolutionary Peasant Movement." Aguirre places Zapata in a cornfield and surrounds him with tall stalks and harvested husks. Zapata is somber, and one hand is open, his palm extended imploringly toward us while he clutches a rifle in the other--a weapon that Aguirre blends so seamlessly with the corn that the impression is of an equation between natural bounty and revolutionary aims. The open palm is enigmatic, suggesting on the one hand a response to critics--"What do you want from me?"--or a tortured side of the leader that he rarely showed to his men but which, in the silence of the cornfield, can now emerge. The stripped-down quality of the work also is instructive; textural variation occurs in block-like passages, and transitions are abrupt, like the work of a prose writer who uses short sentences and very few adjectives.

The same sense of psychological penetration is present in Leopoldo Mendez's 1948 linocut "The Torches," though here it's combined with overtly dramatic subject matter. In Mendez's work, the transitions are seamless; the torch flames resonate throughout the work in a simple, inexorable rhythm. It's as if nature itself is participating in the struggle of the everyman hero (in this case, a young Mexican schoolteacher carrying a torch).

The ability of Mendez and others to control textural variations is, in many ways, a metaphor for the fluid approach to history presented in many of these works. This is particularly true of Gabriel Fernandez Ledesma's 1944 lithograph "Archaeological Ruins," which depicts an enormous pre-Columbian head being removed from the earth by a group of modern workmen in hard hats. A truck is waiting nearby, while farther off stands a majestic Mayan temple. Yet there's no sense of collision or disharmony as past and present converge.

Collision and disharmony are, by contrast, the main characteristics of Andrea Gómez's 1950 linocut "Rich Well," which takes as its subject the feeling of disenchantment among Mexican peasants. This bleak study in contrast poses hunched peasants and their rudimentary homes against the steel oil wells that pepper an expansive valley. In a bitterly ironic touch, the peasant homes echo the shape of the oil wells, suggesting that land owners have placed personal profit above simple livelihood and the pleasures of the hearth.

Sometimes, the incongruities between modern technology and agrarian simplicity simply can't be juggled, and a surreal hodgepodge of natural forms and industrial objects is the result. Antonio Pujol's 1938 lithograph "Memento of Spain," for instance, is a reminder of war that looks like a cross between a museum diorama and a child's conception of chaos. Barbed wire and airplanes sit side by side with forms that resemble sea anenomes and other underwater creatures. A war is taking place in a metaphorical netherworld--and an underwater part of the human mind not often exposed in everyday life is here made manifest.

Surrealist in tone but confessional in content is Frida Kahlo's lone print in the exhibit, "Frida and the Miscarriage," a lithograph she made in Detroit in 1932 after losing a child fathered by Rivera. In this strange self-portrait, the moon cries while Kahlo splits herself into two halves: sperm, fetus, genitals, and blood are left to fend for themselves in a world that is inhospitable and shot through with pain. It's a far cry from the vision of Kahlo that Rivera presents in his 1930 lithograph "Nude With Beads (Frida Kahlo)." Wearing nothing but a necklace, Kahlo appears to surrender herself entirely to her husband's gaze. However, Rivera renders her face in shadow, and Kahlo withholds her eyes, staring down. She is exposed but, paradoxically, seems as enigmatic as ever. Rivera seems to be acknowledging that there are aspects of his wife that elude even him.

This interchange between Kahlo and Rivera is a rare detour into the realm of the personal. Elsewhere, the drive toward understanding the quiet heroism of the peasant and his world continues. Rufino Tamayo's works are among the best in this vein, marked by a quiet devotional strength. His late-1920s woodcut "Woodchopper" is a fine example of his style, in part because Tamayo is as much a woodchopper as the peasant in his work. The peasant is captured with his ax at the top of the swing, ready to be released in a moment of coiled-spring energy.

The same subject--the peasant's devotion to his craft and the artist's devotion to his art--gets a heaping dose of melodrama in Alfredo Zalce's 1945 lithograph "Weaver of Becal Hats." In this ode to the quiet dignity of the worker, the feathery texture of one of the man's hats is echoed in the skin on his chest. The artist has become his work, and for good measure, Zalce has placed him in an enclosure reminiscent of both a cave and a womb. So much for the stereotype of the despotic Mexican macho male--and so much for subtlety.

Zalce overreaches again with the print "Propaganda," which consists of a large mouth half morphed into a radio. This is the kind of protest art that's as simpleminded as the bogeyman it's meant to condemn. But Zalce's lapses are minor, considering the grand and panoramic view provided by the rest of the exhibit.

The printmakers in Mexican Prints re-imagined the past, not because they were nostalgic for the old days (those old days weren't so good for many Mexicans), but because, like the public they were attempting to enlighten, they were still trying to sort through the implications of a tumultuous past. In the process, they created a treasure trove for future generations.

Mexican Prints, through May 23 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Boulevard, 216-421-7340.

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