Ingenuity seizes the day as a traveling exhibition brings a vibrant creative scene across the border.

January 30, 2007, page E5
David Pagel, The Los Angeles Times

For the last decade or so, big museums in the United States have made lots of noise about including contemporary art from Central and South America in their exhibition schedules. What actually gets shown, however, is a safe roster of international superstars, the same handful of artists from such places as Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro whose works have received an institutional stamp of approval and regularly appear at biennials, fairs and contemporary galleries.

"Strange New World: Art and Design from Tijuana" flies in the face of such lemming-like behavior by showing young, untested artists from off the beaten track. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and currently installed at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the engaging, often bitingly funny exhibition features approximately 50 works by 20 contemporary artists from Tijuana. It's the first major traveling exhibition to survey that city's art, and one of the best overviews of any locale south of the border.

A terrific sampler of a show, it paints a picture of a multifaceted art scene in which experimentation outweighs protect-your-assets careerism. Do-it-yourself verve drives the diverse works in the handsomely installed show. Most make a virtue of scrappy adaptation, emphasizing that art and discovery go together, and that without the latter the former is boring.

A giant shrine-style wall work by Einar and Jamex de la Torre gets things off to a great start. Just inside the entrance "Exporting Democracy" covers a wall with a world map. Using blown glass, cast resin, plastic fangs, fake fur, rubber caterpillars, toy coins, pink glitter and real beans, the brothers have built the United States into a gigantic low-relied medallion that is equal parts fertility icon, epicenter of evil and cheesy horror show.

Their barbed cartoon literally gives birth to hundreds of plastic monarch butterflies with small crucifixes attached to their bodies. These mutant creatures emerge from the heartland and follow a spiraling path to the museum's rafters, where they reverse course, metamorphose into tinfoil-wrapped Jesus-missiles and plummet from the heavens, crashing back into the wall map all around Baghdad.

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand the piece. But that doesn't diminish the visual impact, make-do ingenuity or weird mystery.

Dozes of translucent faces are affixed to the map, popping up everywhere except in the U.S. Resembling the smiling Buddha, kabuki masks and wrestling costumes, they suggest that there's more to the story than meets the eye - and that you must see it for yourself to make sense of it.

Other artists employ similar types of 3-D collage, mixing and matching metaphors as they tell loaded stories about life on the border. Julio Orozco and Daniel Ruanova transform characters from comic books and pulp paperbacks into oddly layered pieces of participatory theatre. in their hands clichés become curiously complicated dramas.

Maps and scale models play a prominent role, allowing artists to move freely between their imaginations and reality. Photo-collages and dioramas by Guatamala-born architect and urban planner Teddy Cruz suggest a flexible future in which recycled things increasingly meet the needs of a growing population. A more ominous future is evoked by the surveillance-style video projected onto a topographic model of the border region by Torolab, an artist collective founded by Raúl Cárdenas-Osuna in 1995. "The Region of the Transborder Trousers" uses humor and GPS technology, sewn into metallic pants of five participants, to track their movements over five days in 2004.

Marcos Ramírez ERRE's pint-sized model of "Toy an Horse" recalls the towering, two-headed wooden horse that he installed astride the border in 1997. His miniature billboard, part of a project with social historian Mike Davis, stands in for an actual billboard on Interstate 5. Both make viewers think twice about what it means to be a man and just where vigilance fits into identity.

Pop Realism forms a potent component of the show. It includes a queasy trio of Salomón Huerta's portraits of middle class homes; Hugo Crosthwaite's four-panel panorama of a ghostly cityscape drawn in smoky charcoal; Alida Cervantes' seven portraits of salt-of-the-earth working-class women; and Yvonne Venegas' 13 glossy photographs of privileged folks, all of whom seem to be working hard to keep up appearances.

Abstract art is well represented. Mely Barragán recycles worn-out automobile mufflers, some of which are hand-painted shop signs, into a tangled 3-D drawing that crawls up the wall. René Peralta (with collaborators Karlo de Soto and Miguel Franco) use laser-cut wooden panels to build a decorative barricade that ambles through two galleries.

Jaime Ruiz Otis transforms industrial cutting mats into templates for haunting geometric prints. And Enríque Ciapara's casually exquisite painting makes you wish there was more than one in the show, its simple squiggles recalling Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat without being derivative.

A large part of the show's pleasure resides in the unpretentiousness of its works. The same cannot be said of the catalogue, which is an overdesigned, overproduced bit of overkill. It includes five forwards - by the director of the San Diego museum; Mexico's ambassador to the United States; the governor of Baja California; the Mayor of Tijuana; and the Mexican consol general in San Diego. It also includes a photographic sightseeing trip through Tijuana, seven essays, full-page portraits of the artist in the show, and encyclopedia-style entries on those artists and 20 others.

Such institutional overcompensation is out of step with the exhibited works, which are free-wheeling and far-reaching, with something for everyone and a whole lot left over.