Conflict resolution

Reed Johnson | Los Angeles Times | 19 Feb 2006

IN Demian Flores Cortes’ hometown of Juchitan, in southern Mexico, women hold most of the economic and social power. In his adopted home of Mexico City, machismo still rules.

In Juchitan (pronounced hoo-chee-TAHN), the favorite sport is baseball. Here in the nation’s capital, it’s soccer.

In Juchitan, many natives still converse in the indigenous Zapotec tongue and commune with ancient pre-Hispanic gods. In Mexico City, the populace genuflects before the deities of television, movies and advertising and bristles at the invasion of globalized gringo-speak even as it apes the latest Hollywood slang, fashions and attitudes.

Such a mishmash heritage might seem a recipe for a severe case of cultural schizophrenia. But Flores has been absorbing these types of contradictions since adolescence.

In doing so, he has developed an artistic sensibility that moves fluidly between pre-Hispanic and modern, rural and urban, indigenous cosmology and Madison Avenue, Mexican culture and what Mexicans refer to as “North American” culture – north, that is, of the Rio Grande. While many contemporary Mexican artists grapple with that nebulous abstraction known as “the border,” in Flores’ vision la frontera can be practically anywhere outside Juchitan, which for him constitutes a world unto itself.

“For me, the frontier is a line that one crosses imaginatively,” says Flores, showing visitors around his art-studded home at the far southern end of the capital and talking with his customary quick cadences. “And for me, Juchitan is a species of frontier. So I am trying to find or to start dialogues between this, on the one side, indigenous Juchiteca and all the rest of the world, which could be Mexico City or anywhere else.”

Feeling at home in more than one aesthetic universe at the same time is a trademark of both Flores’ life and his art. Born in Juchitan in 1971 but partly raised in Mexico City, where his family moved when he was a teenager, Flores assimilated both the centuries-old Zapotec culture and the modern pop culture of the Chilangos, as Mexico City residents are known. Flores likes to refer to himself as a “Juchilango,” a term that echoes the Mexican concept of mestizaje, or “mixed race” – the blending of disparate elements and identities to form a new people or new culture. The quality of mestizaje is present throughout Flores’ growing body of prints, paintings and installations, which incorporate imagery from ancient Mesoamerican codices as readily as they do comic books and corporate advertising.


Resistance and conquest

FLORES’ cultural duality reverberates in the punning title of his current solo exhibition, “MATCH dual presence,” as well as in the show’s remarkable double venue. “MATCH dual presence” is being presented simultaneously, in halves as it were, in the Hertha and Walter Klinger Gallery at the USC Fisher Gallery and in the Sala de Arte at the University of Baja California in Tijuana. It runs through April 15.

With its connotations of sporting contests and other forms of combat, “MATCH dual presence” hints at the key concepts of struggle, conquest and resistance that animate Flores’ work. Drawing visual and thematic analogies between ancient Zapotec ballgames and American baseball, Indian warriors and modern Mexican lucha libre wrestlers, Flores’ art frequently expresses his multilayered ideas about aesthetic and cultural conflict.

Mexico’s history, like that of many countries, is one of violent collisions between competing value systems, and Flores’ worldview is steeped in this history. His works can be seen as boisterous market squares for the bartering of ideas or as athletic fields or gladiatorial arenas where wildly varying elements are given license to tussle and brawl.

In his “Novena” paintings series (2003), parts of which are on view at USC, baseball players with grotesquely swollen heads and elongated arms seem to be acting out some dark, primal ritual that has little to do with Crackerjack or a seventh-inning stretch. This feeling, both queasy and comic, is enhanced by an accompanying series of beautifully made wooden baseball bats, absurdly sculpted to look like a cross between a Dadaist “readymade” (as the critic Victor Zamudio-Taylor has noted) and a medieval torture instrument.

In a related series, baseball caps are inscribed with enigmatic Spanish words and phrases, a la Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger: “The Greatest Tragedies Are Written With 2 Outs,” “The Generations Pass and the Idols Fall,” “Maybes Don’t Exist in Baseball.” Flores’ obsession with baseball and his way of combining drawings with cryptic aphorisms also bring to mind L.A. artist Raymond Pettibon, whose work he admires.

Taking the concept to its outlandishly logical conclusion, “Novena” was mounted in the Eduardo Vasconcelos Baseball Stadium in Oaxaca city, displayed on walls as well as in a kind of Potemkin gallery installed within the stadium. “It brought a cultural space to a public space,” says Flores, who believes that art should be made to reverberate with a wider public rather than destined simply to hang on some collector’s wall.

This philosophy underscores his frequent appropriation of pop culture imagery. In his dazzling “Monte Alban” series of 2001 – inspired by the great Zapotec archeological site outside Oaxaca city – Superman, Popeye, Bugs Bunny and the controversial Mexican comic-book character Memin Pinguin cavort and joust with soccer players, prizefighters and stylized pre-Columbian warriors and female fertility figures among the ruined Indian pyramids. In the serigraph “Tributos de Guerra” (War Tributes), an elaborately costumed Indian warrior brandishes Elmer Fudd’s head on a pike.

Thus, battle is joined in a metaphysical-aesthetic showdown between the symbolic figures of the Zapotec past and the new global icons. The competing cosmologies overlap and absorb, assimilate and neutralize one another, producing jagged visual harmonies as well as dissonances. Often the images float sideways or upside down, as if freed from spatial and gravitational constraints, as do the figures in Mesoamerican manuscripts that document the triumphs and defeats of long-vanished empires.

Although these energetic visual dust-ups may at times appear chaotic, even anarchic, they are in fact meticulously refereed by Flores’ exacting sense of order and his Oaxacan native’s love of lush color. “That’s also the richness of his work, because the prints are so well done that the sensual impact is very strong,” says Olga Davila, curator of the USC/Tijuana show.

Though Flores lived for a spell in Paris and now spends most of his time in Mexico City, he grounds his work in the ferociously creative milieu of Juchitan, where he still maintains a studio. Not coincidentally, the first person he informed about his intention to study art was fellow Juchitan native Francisco Toledo, a family friend and arguably Mexico’s greatest living artist.

“The first part of my work is very Juchitan, very nostalgic for the people,” Flores says. “Mexico City is so huge, it has everything culturally, [but] Oaxaca is more of a human scale, more humane.”

A provincial capital of about 70,000 in the isthmus of Tehuantepec near the Pacific coast of Oaxaca state, Juchitan, like its mainly Zapotec inhabitants, is famed for ornery independence, both culturally and politically. Long before Europeans descended on the New World, Juchitan was an economic crossroads where many different indigenous peoples came to trade and sell. “It’s a zone of a great deal of productivity and interchange between neighboring towns,” says Flores, who comes from a long line of merchants there. “It gave me a vision toward knowing many different worlds, in the global sense.”

In pre-Hispanic times, the Zapotecs of Juchitan resisted the power grabs of larger indigenous groups. In later centuries, Juchitan held out against the invading Spanish conquistadors and the French army sent to occupy Mexico in the mid-1800s. Later still, in the 1970s, the city was the center of an emerging indigenous student-rights movement. And at some point in recent decades, the coastal area of nearby Puerto Escondido was discovered and colonized by U.S. surfers. Flores has incorporated surfer-related imagery into his work, and the way in which the “surfer aesthetic has displaced the original aesthetic of the town” fascinates him.

The area is equally well known for its matriarchal power structure. In Juchitan, robust Zapotec women dressed in brilliantly colored traditional clothes wield most of the social power and control the purse strings. Gay male children are supported, even prized, as opposed to being scorned the way they are in much of Mexico, and the area is considered a safe harbor of tolerance and open-mindedness.

Even as his work gains international attention, Flores expects to keep returning through his art to the singular community of Juchitan: insular and eclectic, introspective and outward-facing, autonomous and interconnected. Much the same perhaps could be said of many places in the globalized 21st century.

Now, with his show in Los Angeles, which contains probably the world’s largest Oaxacan immigrant community, Flores is looking forward to seeing how the little global village of Juchitan will connect with the modern mega-village of Southern California.

“I believe that art has to have a more open market, socially,” he says. “I believe in this capacity to be able to extend art, to arrive at a bigger public.”