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Great Masters of Mexico Popular Arts

by Beverly Inman Field

As a former museum director, I have unique expectations and criteria for viewing traveling exhibitions. Having a life-long passion for folk art and learning that the Banamex bank-sponsored exhibit entitled "Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art" was at the Guadalajara Regional Museum until January 2000, I made haste to view the "créme de la créme."
I wasn't disappointed. Each and every form of Mexican folk art was represented from decorated sugar skulls used for Day of the Dead festivities to fine silver, clay Tree of Life presentations to life size ceramic figures, and from masks and embroidered native costumes to fine hand-blown glass. Every artistic medium imaginable was there.
Guarding the entrance to the exhibition were large sensuous ceramic jaguars and giant jars by Alberto Bautista Gomez. They snarled at me from their high perches ready to leap. They set the tone and theme for the rest of the exhibit. I hadn't been prepared for such drama. My heart was captured.
Everyone has personal preferences that simply override professional biases. Mine happen to be seashells. A large seashell that had been carved and pierced captivated me. It changed the way I will view my own shell collection forever more. There is hidden beauty beneath the surface of this material. It took a Michelangelo to release heroic figures from marble. Baja California Sur's Walterio Gil Flores releases intricate floral designs from the seashells of his native environment. Yet more importantly, he released my imagination and creative thought about this particular material as one for potential fine art.
Leandro Espinoza of Veracruz also releases figures but from logs of wood. The figures twist and climb around the missing central portion or heart of the log. This allows almost a full figure carving, taking it a step farther from the norm.
The influence of the Catholic Church was everywhere represented. From the elaborate Tree of Life to a carved wooden statue of the "Queen" of heaven holding an animated baby Jesus. David de Jesus Juarez from Tlaquepaque succeeded in bringing fresh faces to this traditional depiction of the Madonna, however it falls just short of being "high" art.
In earlier centuries great masters took their favorite medium or art material to new heights. They pushed the envelope, so to speak, and sometimes just sometimes, they discovered a new thing. These were the masterpieces of their era.
Banamex's program, which started in 1996 as their foundation's "Aid to Folk Art," was designed to help Mexico's artisans through a crushing economic period during which the peso recovered from devaluation. Like the great patrons of the past who kept food on the artist's table, thus allowing them the luxury of spending their day creating, this program similarly allows Mexico's proven greats the same privilege.
The true artist personality is absolutely driven to keep creating. They will do it to the exclusion of all other activities. Everything else pales against the exhilaration found in this god-like act. So who are the beneficiaries of this type of patronage in Mexico? The artist himself, of course, because his health and well being insured, he will obviously live longer and produce more; and the artist's family surely. But, in reality, it is we the people who will benefit from the sheer joy of being in the presence of great art.
This is what I sensed as I came upon Ignacio Punzo Angel's traditional vase or "olla" crafted from silver. He has taken this shape to its ultimate interpretation using a perfectly balanced rope design circling in remembrance of ancestral jugs bound with sisal for carrying.
Silver has always been a favorite medium of art in Mexico since the Conquistador's passion for that metal. Seeking gold in the new world, they found silver here and seven centuries later their ancestors create twenty-first century masterpieces.
Sparkling in all of its faceted glory stands a classic-shaped silver pitcher by Antonio Castillo Terán of Guerrero. Sitting atop it perched ready to drink, is a large parrot inlaid in green stone. Doubling as a handle, its perfect proportions just "feel" right. But far more importantly this piece epitomizes the concept of the exhibition's creators.
This large tropical bird, much loved since the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, still captures the hearts of modern day visitors. Its image, both historical and contemporary, interprets the heart of Mexico for the world.
The true value of the artist is to help us perceive those cultural personalities so different from our own, yet which seem to strike familiar chords within the whole human family. Here lies the greatness in "Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art." Your heart will be changed in the viewing.