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Abel Quezada drew the idiosyncratic soul of Mexico

May 20, 2011 |  3:02 pm

Abel quezada mural los angeles times

Above: "There go some low-class people."

"I make illustrated texts," the Mexican cartoonist Abel Quezada once remarked. "People like calling them cartoons in order to define my profession, but I consider myself someone who draws. Drawing for me is a constant nervous tic."

It was a tic that for more than 50 years produced some of the most memorable political cartoons in the popular imagination of Mexico. Quezada skewered both left and right, rich and poor, and was undeterred from criticizing through his "illustrated texts" the long regime under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

That much is known about Quezada by anyone who can point to one of his many recognizable drawings of "typical" Mexicans -- our idiosyncratic selves, for better or for worse.

An overweight man in a cowboy hat with a party pin on his jacket signifies the "PRI Deputy." A robust pointy-nosed woman in a gown and pearls symbolizes a haughty "Dame of Las Lomas." Even a journalist type pops up in Quezada's illustrations. The workhorse scribe is represented as a man so paper-thin he is tied to the ground with rope to prevent him from floating away.

Such images reappear in a far-reaching exhibit on Quezada's work, "Códice Abel Quezada," currently on view at the Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico in downtown Mexico City (links in Spanish). The exhibit, a 15-year project curated by Alfonso Morales and organized with the support of the Quezada family civil organization, breaks new ground on the artist, depicting him as a full-fledged master who also excelled in painting and mural-making.

Indeed, some of his most vivid work wasn't inspired by Mexico but rather his time spent in New York. Other wondrous Quezada pieces illustrate a fantastical metropolis named Comales that existed only in the artist's imagination.

"He had two cities, three cities -- well, maybe four, Paris was another -- that seduced him enormously," curator Morales said in an interview with La Plaza. "Comales was like the capital of the world [for Quezada], the best of the worlds that are impossible." 

"Ultimately," Morales added, "he was a fabulist."

Abel quezada los angeles times woman in leopard chair

Above: "La mujer de la silla color leopardo," oil on canvas, 1989.

Quezada was born in 1920 to a Protestant family in the northern city of Monterrey in predominantly Roman Catholic Mexico. He moved to Mexico City in 1936 with his family and later began drawing professionally for the daily newspapers.

Between 1946 and 1949, Quezada tried his luck in New York. There, struggling to find work, the artist drew and painted, drew and painted. He developed deep affections for baseball and professional boxing, reflected in small watercolors or oil paintings done later in life. Before Quezada's death in 1991, he produced several covers for the New Yorker magazine. (The covers, made over a seven-year period, are viewable here.)

Yet Quezada's greatest muse remained the absurd carnival that is life in Mexico. Over the years, he managed to hold the admiration of the PRI and opposition establishments, if only because, as Morales put it, his "criticisms were often confused for homages."

In one of his political cartoon captions, Quezada wrote, "The Revolution created equality within our rich with only one small difference: Some belong to the PRI and some belong to the PAN."

Abel quezada los angeles times here come the rains

Above: "Here come the rains" ; the newspaper headline in the lower right reads, "There will be no floods this year."

Quezada walked a narrow line between insider and outsider status in Mexican society. One of his most potent images appeared in the days after the PRI-led massacre of unarmed students at Tlatelolco Plaza in 1968. It was nothing but a slate of black covering an entire page in the newspaper Excelsior, with the caption, "Why?" (See a reproduction here.)

Yet, by 1988, he was commissioned by the state oil company Pemex to paint a mural commemorating the nationalization of the oil industry. The mural has been on view in a stately meeting room in the Pemex headquarters in Mexico City since Quezada completed it. The company allowed the mural to be moved temporarily to the current exhibit, making it viewable to the public for the first time.

Quezada remained vigilant against the system that dominated Mexico for most of his life and sparked countless of his illustrations. Speaking to a group of university students late in his career, the artist said: "It is now no longer a question of whether the so-called Mexican political system has succeeded or failed. Morally, it failed long ago, thanks to its defect: the renewing of corruption."

"Códice Abel Quezada" is on view through the first week of June.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photos: Daniel Hernandez / La Plaza / Los Angeles Times

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