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Art review: Felipe Ehrenberg at Museum of Latin American Art

June 15, 2010 | 11:45 am
Zapatista2 Stefanie Keenan Mexican artist Felipe Ehrenberg is probably best known for voluminous printed works -- stenciled pictures, booklets, altered photographs, Xeroxes, performance audio tape, etc. --  made in loose association with the Fluxus movement of the 1960s and '70s. That international network of artists and composers was committed to art as time-bound ephemera.

But in 1973, while he was self-exiled in the United Kingdom to avoid political problems at home, he made a small sculpture titled "Silent Sound Box #1." The modest object is a wooden cigar box adorned with piano keys. Amid nearly 200 works in Ehrenberg's engaging traveling retrospective at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, the small sculpture is something of a touchstone.

Partly that's because of its form. The show of course includes much printed ephemera, including stenciled self-portraits of the handsome, grinning artist that recall the posters for political candidates one sees all over Mexico. But boxes also turn up again and again.

Rows of stenciled self-portraits and floral bouquets are spray-painted on 1963's "Simply a flower [Made in Mexico] A Work from Sonora" -- a tall, wide, shallow wooden box that hangs like a painting on the wall. It suggests a conventional painting's flattened shipping container; here, however, the images painted inside are the box's contents, not a painting as a separate object.
  Simply a flower2 "Congratulations Salvador" is a wall-mounted 1984 wooden box that's very skinny (just inches) and wide (almost three feet). Resting on top is a little toy bomb, plus a broken bone. The bone is painted in dirty, smudged tones of red, white and blue. The front of the skinny box slides open to reveal a metal keyhole cover inside, plus some more tiny toys.

A little marksman kneels, aiming his rifle at a pair of seaside bathers. Ambiguous, the scene and the sculpture's date recall tumultuous, politically tangled events in El Salvador's brutal civil war, complete with Reagan-era U.S. meddling and the 1984 election of a leftist president, Jose Napoleon Duarte. Ehrenberg's title, "Congratulations Salvador" reads like a nod of approval that is by turns poignant and skeptical.

A decade later, a pair of briefcase-size boxes commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Iberian invasion of Latin America, after the Treaty of Tordesillas began the process of carving up New World territories between Spain and Portugal. "The Dream of the Lonely" recalls a child's pop-up book, complete with grim engravings of slave-holding conquistadors; "The Word of God" is filled with wooden crosses stuck into lumps of Styrofoam -- Golgotha made into a model for a theatrical stage set.

There are more. Boxes can be sent packing, which seems appropriate to a modern world of nomadic travel -- not to mention exile. Ehrenberg moved to England for several years after Mexican police shut down a 1968 production of "Hair" on which he'd helped design sets. Hippies, pacifism and scandalous nudity!

The proliferation of boxes in Ehrenberg's work also suggests multiple sources, which inflect his work's meanings. One is Marcel Duchamp's "Box in a Valise" (1935-41). That iconoclastic, portable art collection contains photographs and miniature replicas of Duchamp's own work, plus one original drawing, all of which packs up nicely for storage and moving.

Another source is the nicho, the boxy portable niches made in Latin America to house Colonial devotional saints for domestic altars. A third is the satirical little diorama boxes showing common social situations, often politically charged, that are a staple of arte popular -- Mexican folk art. 

Ehrenberg sometimes manipulates the box in provocative ways. Perhaps the most inventive is a large pair of 1997 works whose painted image comes from Time magazine. One painting hangs on the wall, its seven irregular, hinged-wood panels evoking a Catholic altarpiece. The other stands on the floor, the painted  image identical but flopped, its panels now folded into a variable display.

The paintings show an especially brutal machete attack on Zapatistas in Southern Mexico. The horrific event later contributed to the loss of a near dictatorial stranglehold on national power by the once revolutionary, long entrenched PRI political party.

Ehrenberg's hinged panels turn the scene into a kind of puzzle, which can be rearranged into various positions to accommodate different situations. No matter what shape it takes in whatever context it is installed, however, the deathly picture of modern martyrdom does not change. The formal metaphor stings.

Sun dial2 That brings us back to "Silent Sound Box #1," the little cigar box with piano keys made near the end of Ehrenberg's exile. On the inside bottom of the box is a collage, ornamented with a Colonial Baroque cartouche. The piano keys are mute. The homemade music box is rendered silent and bittersweet.

Ehrenberg was born in Mexico City in 1943. A few adept figure-drawings, made when he was between 14 and 16, reveal how artistically precocious he was.

Trained first as a printer, Ehrenberg worked with muralist José Chávez Morado and German expatriate sculptor Mathias Goeritz. He also edited and wrote for the culture section of the Mexico City Times, including a movie column. Eventually, just before becoming a neighborhood activist in the horrible wake of the capital's 1985 earthquake, he entered the political realm, running unsuccessfully for office. From 2000 to 2006 he was cultural attaché for the Mexican Embassy in São Paulo, Brazil, where he still lives.

Some of the exhibition can be rough going. Such is the nature of printed ephemera, which cannot be handled and fully perused in a museum. (Reading Spanish is often necessary.) Tied to specific events, it requires historical knowledge.

Also, Conceptual art from 1960s and '70s Latin America often reflects a different impulse from the U.S. and European variety. A dramatic refusal of painting, sculpture and other conventional art objects didn't really apply in Mexico, since renunciation of easel painting by the revered mural movement had been orthodox for decades.

Politically inspired mural art had, however, institutionalized certain social narratives. Ehrenberg's work disrupts them.

Take his poetic 1994 model for a public monument, proposed for the small Veracruz city of Xico. Forget big stone carvings of revolutionary heroes and heroines, which dominate Mexican public sculpture. Ehrenberg's minimalist design for a huge steel sundial instead rests a long, slender arrow on an enormous cloth sail, to track the Earth's constant movement through the solar day.

Veracruz, Mexico's oldest seaport, where Cortes landed in 1519, is deeply entwined with the nation's history. Ehrenberg's lovely "Sun Dial for Xico" recalls Pre-Columbian solar calendars -- the Aztec sun stone is printed on peso coins -- transformed into a thoroughly contemporary idiom. That it was never built suggests how difficult change can be.

-- Christopher Knight

Follow me @twitter.com/KnightLAT

Manchuria: Peripheral Vision -- A Felipe Ehrenberg Retrospective, Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-1689, through Aug. 15. Admission: $9.Closed Mon. and Tue. www.molaa.org

Photos: Felipe Ehrenberg, "Tzotziles, members of the PRI [Revolutionary Institutional Party], attack with machetes a man suspected of sympathizing with EZLN [National Liberation Zapatista Army] on November 22," 1997; left to right: "Sólo una flor (Hecho en México) ¡Obra Sonora!" (1963), "Espejo" (1967) and "Matthías" 1967; left to right: "Self-portrait" (undated) and "Sun Dial for Xico" (1994); Credit: Stefanie Keenan
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