Demián Flores

Leta Ming | ArtNexus | Jun 2006

The variety of materials and installation formats used in Demián Flores Cortés’s three-room exhibition in Los Angeles is so pronounced that a distracted viewer might mistake it for a group show. From aquatint print to wall drawing, from altered found object to animated video, Flores Cortés’s work reminds us how contemporary artists rarely limit themselves to one specific medium and successfully shift between older and newer artistic technologies. Despite the material diversity, the works cohere thematically, coalescing around three athletic activities—baseball, Mexican wrestling or lucha libre, and martial arts. The works are inflected with the artist’s self-described identity as a mestizo of Zapotec and Spanish lineage and juchilango—“ju” for Flores Cortés’s native city of Juchitán in Oaxaca and “chilango” for Mexico City, his home since he was a teenager.

Baseball, a sport imported to Mexico from the United States in the nineteenth century, and now particularly popular in Oaxaca, provides the material basis for Novena (Novenary, 2003), an installation of nine pre-existing baseball bats that were transformed into sculptural objects using lathe and carving techniques. Hung in a row at the same height and at evenly spaced intervals, the bats compose an elegant yet sober work that represents Flores Cortés’s most stylistically Minimalist creation. Another baseball-themed work, National Heroes Pyramid (2003), also employs seriality but with a stronger Pop sensibility. In a playfully irreverent gesture, the artist silk-screened found portraits of historical, Mexican revolutionary leaders onto twenty baseballs stacked into a pyramid. By forging a Pre-Columbian structure out of the trappings of a popular game, Flores Cortés links the contemporary with the ancient, the common with the sacred, and the U.S. with Mexico.

The tension between mass culture and high art also runs through Brown Paper People(2003), a set of forty paper bags imprinted with lucha libre-themed woodcuts. The use of an outmoded and laborious graphic technique to render a contemporary, highly theatrical, and crude sport produces an intriguing piece that thrives on its play of high and low culture. The subject of wrestling again refers to a professional sport that Americans imported to Mexico but which has been transformed into a distinctive game in its new setting, and this is consistent with Flores Cortés’s interest in cultural mixture. Lucha libre (Wrestling) is also the subject of two other compelling works in completely different mediums: Vs. from 2005, a twenty-five-minute video that features two real-life wrestlers in various acts of posturing and fighting; and Silver Shadows from 2001, a series of fifteen square prints of luminous silver foil silhouettes on black grounds.

The third athletic trope in the show, martial arts, is the theme of works such as Self-Defense (2005), a set of three engravings made by turning the same plate 180 degrees and reworking it for successive prints. While this work demonstrates the artist’s fascination with process and repetition, the results are muddled and hard to decipher. A more engaging piece using similar imagery is Self-Defense Painting (2005), in which two figures rendered in thickly applied paint are superimposed on a colorful patchwork of bandannas stretched over a canvas. Flores Cortés appropriated from a martial arts manual the illustration of two men engaged in a fist-fight, but he embellished it with a serpent’s head shown bursting from one man’s chest. The juxtaposition of the serpent, a common figure in Mesoamerican culture, and the bandannas—used by Mexican laborers and Mayan Zapatista rebels alike—attests to the artist’s liberal mingling of current and historical Mexican allusions.

Whether Zapotec versus Spanish, Oaxaqueño versus chilango, or Mexican versus American, competing identities struggle to have a voice in Flores Cortés’s oeuvre. The result is not a simplistic resolving of these oppositions but an amplification of the cultural and temporal intermixing that is the condition of contemporary life.

The exhibition in Los Angeles, forms only one part of a multi-venue show entitled “Match: dual presence/presencia dual,” curated by Olga Margarita Davila of the Mexico City-based contemporary arts organization Another solo exhibition focusing on Flores’s paintings is simultaneously on view across the border at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California in Tijuana, Mexico, from February 24 to April 7, and the two sister shows will be joined together at a final venue at the Galeria de Teatro José Peón Contreras in Mérida, Mexico.