Like some new member of a 12-step group, the curator stands at a lectern in the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium and declares to the audience: “My name is Karen Crews Hendon and I am a magical realist.”
It is a fitting introduction to a lecture in conjunction with the museum’s exhibition titled “The MAW Collection of Contemporary Mexican Art,” consisting of 21 paintings and prints donated by a Southern California organization formed by a group of collectors who wish to remain anonymous. Magical realism is closely associated with the exhibition, which highlights seven artists from Oaxaca.
In these works, humans shape-shifts into animals – or vice versa. Some of those animals play musical instruments. People fly. Things are depicted that don’t happen in the “real” world.
Being a magical realist requires a leap of faith, really, a belief that unknowable or marvelous things occur in the rational world. Unlike other artistic genres that seem to come with their own sets of rules – you need to be educated about a painting to really “get it” – magical realism is best understood as a much more individual experience. Just as no two conversations are ever exactly the same between two people, no two “conversations” between a painting and a viewer can ever be identical.
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“We all have different backgrounds, and symbols all mean different things to us,” Hendon tells me the day after the Wednesday lecture. “We all have different interpretations. It’s no different than how we walk around in life and act or react to things that happen.”
The works in the exhibition are filled with recognizable figures and forms that at the same time seem vague and very much open to interpretation. Take, for example, Humberto Batista’s 1996 painting “Los Pingos (The Trickster),” which depicts a central, mask-wearing figure presiding over what looks like a ceremony. In front of this central shamanic-like figure, an animal of some sorts with a big spiral tale seems to be morphing in front of us. Two more figures on either side, also wearing masks, frame the image.
What does it mean?
Once you learn that Batista grew up close to Teotihuacan in Mexico and that his artwork was greatly influenced by his pre-Columbian ancestors, you can amble down one path. In this indigenous culture, the figure of the “trickster” was important. Sometimes referred to as a sacred clown, the trickster served as a bridge between the natural and spiritual worlds. It is a shamanic character. Articulating the relationship between shamanism and magical realism can get complicated, but know that the latter in many ways stems from the former.
Another important symbol in the Mesoamerican belief system was the nahual, a human being who had the power to transform into an animal form. The creature with the spiral tail in the painting could be a mermaid, a popular symbol in the culture.
While it can be helpful to understand the back story of a work of art, however, don’t feel that you have to. That’s when you can wander off on a different path of your own. Sometimes the experience can mean more when you don’t treat it as an intellectual exercise, a rush to check each symbol off a list.
“Everyone can create a different story from the same artwork,” Hendon says.
Consider this: Art is really the first “language” that we learn, she says, even before words come along. Art is primal. Which means that your gut reaction to an artwork, the emotions or feelings that it evokes, could be more important than the language you use to try to articulate the experience. (Which is one reason why so much writing about art can be so obtuse.)
Because of the donors’ affinity for anonymity, Hendon is the public face of the Fresno exhibition, with an official title of curatorial adviser for the MAW Collection’s holdings of Oaxacan works. (The organization’s name is an acronym of the collectors’ last names.) The collectors, a group of friends who have pooled their acquisitions over the years, have works from other indigenous cultures from around the world as well.
The group gave the works in the exhibition to the Fresno Art Museum last year. (Works also went to the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach.) One of the collectors had visited Fresno almost two decades ago and had been impressed with the museum’s dedication to pre-Columbian works.
Other Oaxacan artists featured in the show include Charles Barth (whose “Lucha Libre” is a wildly colorful homage to the heavily stylized form of professional wrestling) and Maximino Javier (whose “Al Calor de la Noche” is an exciting cacophony of visual whimsy). Fulgencio Lazo’s colorful works occupy a more abstract perch than the other works in the show, a heady blending between the dream and waking worlds.
At the end of the lecture, Hendon leads the audience members in an indigenous ritual called a despacho, which comes from the Q-ero, an indigenous Peruvian culture. Each participant is given three leaves, on which we blow our “intentions.” We then add them to a pile of materials that include sugar for the sweetness of life, grains (quinoa, black beans and corn), figs, cotton balls (symbolizing clouds) and paper stars, thus recreating the earth to the sky. The whole thing is wrapped up in paper, like a big gift, and later buried.
And what “intentions” did Hendon blow into her leaves?
“Abundance and support for the art museum and artists in Fresno,” she tells me.
Thanks to the exhibition she curated, that support just got a little bit stronger.