The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

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APR 2015 Issue

Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film

Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros are remembered as the giants of 20th-century Mexican murals. Their visual disciple, cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (1907 – 97), likewise portrayed the grandeur of the Mexican landscape and its people, expanding the distinctly Mexican oeuvre beyond painting to photography, film, and television. El Museo del Barrio’s large-scale Figueroa retrospective, Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film (previously displayed at LACMA in 2013) casts him in the role of cinematographic auteur to reveal his foundations, influences, collaborations, and legacy as the patriarch of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. The exhibition depicts an artist defined by cultural versatility. Spanning over half a century as an image-maker, Figueroa’s camera lens moved deftly from Surrealism and stylized neorealism in film to the popular telenovela, exposing the great heterogeneity of Mexican life.

On View
El Museo Del Barrio
March 4 – June 27, 2015
New York
Gabriel Figueroa, La Escondida (1956). Film still. Courtesy of the Gabriel Figueroa archive.

The exhibition opens with six floor-to-ceiling screens, enveloping viewers in Figueroa’s huge, dramatic landscapes. Spectators are dwarfed by the movie theater-size screens, which, at this scale, resemble undulating, pulsating murals. Monstrous waves gush forth from multiple directions, surrounding viewers with crashing waves and white sea foam. These scenes are intended for a darkened theater, and El Museo has dimmed the lights to accommodate Figueroa’s powerful images of nightclubs, darkened streets, churches, skies, and seas. His films pull sensuality out of moving water, from trickling puddles, to clear flowing streams, to fishnets slapping the water’s surface. Fish dart, boats glide, and oarsmen’s arms and paddles strike the water in synchronized formation as the viewer walks by.

Figueroa expertly frames movement elsewhere too. Leaves whirl about in a strong wind, dusty palm fronds sway, legions of horses gallop across a Mexican Revolution battlefield. The show especially hones in on Figueroa’s clouds, which roll through the vast Mexican horizon, dancing moodily in time to a musical accompaniment. These skies signify more than temperate weather; they convey a sense of openness or infinitude or foreboding. Mexico is depicted as a place of wonder, from the pyramids at Teotihuacán to the floating gardens ofXochimilco. Like the clouds of Renaissance paintings, Figueroa’s skies are mapped and ordered compositions. Each shot combines singular images to create a narrative flow. The final edits are moving collages imbued with Figueroa’s photographic sensibility.

The exhibition’s inclusion of a selection of Figueroa’s early portrait photographs allow viewers to follow the trajectory of his career from photography to film, which is invariably the crux of the show. The artist transitioned into cinematography after working as a still photographer on movie sets. The baroque light and shadow of his early portraits manifest as early sketches for later masterpieces. Pictorialism and expressionism are consistent influences throughout his career in both photography and film. However, it is Figueroa’s films that develop more socially significant content and definitively Mexican themes and imagery.

Sombrero-clad revolutionary soldiers, cloaked religious women, flickering white votive candles, agave succulents in arid fields, and ammunition belts of the Mexican Revolution make up just part of the vast iconography of El Museo’s selected clips from Figueroa’s early films. These images are signifiers of the greater values and culture of both artist and country, the evolving visual landscape, and national pride—or Mexicanidad—that Figueroa presented to the world between the 1930s and the 1950s. Wall texts provide a compelling interpretation of the afterlife of these images, which “are an essential part of the network of appropriations, exchanges, and reinterpretations that formed Mexican visual identity and culture in the mid-twentieth century and beyond.” El Museo presents related paintings, prints, and photographs in the show that carry similar signifiers, such as Tina Modotti’s well-known photographic tableau of sombreros, dry corn, and Mexican Revolution ammunition belts.

Film’s broad cultural reach made it an excellent medium for presenting new iconography to an expanded audience. The museum spotlights Figueroa’s collaborations with printmaker Leopoldo Méndez, a founder of the People’s Graphic Arts Workshop (Taller de Gráfica Popular) and a recognized printmaker in Mexico. El Museo emphasizes Méndez’s interest in reaching a larger audience by including the engravings he created as backgrounds for credits in various Figueroa films. Film, print illustration, and murals are ingrained within 20th-century Mexican art making. Prints and murals exist both within and outside of the museum, in public spaces or in posters and newspapers, but also on museum walls. By comparing Figueroa to Méndez, El Museo elevates him to his place in art history.

Not all works are as successful in portraying the same tradition, iconography, history, and struggle. Figueroa’s representations of Mexico evolve in the changing visual culture of Mexico. Mexico’s evolution is displayed in Figueroa’s film adaptations of telenovelas of the 1960s and 1970s, which feature none of the earlier traditional Mexican icons but rather the glamour and wealth to which the country aspired. These works are presented on smaller, television-size screens in the show, and lose the vibrancy of Figueroa’s earlier black-and-white films, whose command of light, movement, and Mexican iconography represent his superlative work as a filmmaker.

The museum includes a final hallway of photographs depicting Figueroa filming on location, his face partially hidden by a 35mm camera. Some settings, such as Figueroa waist- deep in a lake with a handheld camera, present compelling tableau of the artist in situ, but most are hagiographic depictions of Figueroa at work that seem extraneous beside the show’s more potent paintings, prints, photography, and film.

Another drawback to the show is the use of fragments of films, which cannot effectively stand in for the full-length works. Although El Museo’s selections are thoughtfully chosen, the absence of specialized full-length screenings, even in public programming, disappoints. Despite these minor problems, however, as a whole, Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film makes a compelling case for Figueroa’s position as an artist in the traditional sense. Figueroa’s reach extends beyond that of the filmmakers and cinematographers of his time. It is clear that Figueroa’s contemporaries are in fact the muralists, printmakers, and photographers who, like Figueroa, portrayed a Mexican landscape wholly their own.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

All Issues