Playfully Serious

The border is examined at the TMA in a mixed-media glass-art show that's not for the faint of heart

When they were kids, the de la Torre brothers—Jamex and Einar—were plucked from the colonial city of Guadalajara in central Mexico and dropped into the freewheeling surfer town of Dana Point in Southern California.

"It was culture shock!" Einar, the younger of the two, said during a lecture last week. "We went from a Catholic boys' school to miniskirts."

The year was 1972. Already steeped in Pre-Columbian motifs, Catholic religious art and Mexican folk crafts, the boys rapidly soaked up all things American, from TV cartoons to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny to the creaking cranking edifice of American consumerism. Everything they absorbed in their bifurcated childhood—and I do mean everything—eventually came back out in their art.

The brothers now collaborate on wild mixed-media glass art, operating out of cross-border studios in San Diego and Ensenada in the Baja. Last week, their carnivalesque sculptures swept into Tucson, filling up the top half of the Tucson Museum of Art in the rollicking exhibition Borderlandia. (The title is a play on Disneylandia, the Chicano name for the Southern California theme park.)

Glimmering with glass and glitter, milagros and video screens, their works travel across history and geography, leaping over every border imaginable, from the political boundary between Mexico and the United States that they first crossed as kids, to the divide between high and low art.

Media are as mixed as they can be. Beautifully colored blown glass is embedded with beer caps. A video of a guy dancing with fire unspools inside a resin-and-glass figure whose headdress combines Elvis heads with Aztec feathers. A gilded Renaissance altarpiece about the Last Judgment is repopulated with altered images of Mexican movie stars and captains of capitalism.

As the opening salvo in Tucson's season-long glass celebration, Borderlandia all by itself shows how glass art has grown up. "Glass is a medium we love," Einar said. "No single sculpture medium is as spontaneous as glass. We love the social dance of it. But we don't do glass all the time."

Indeed. In "La Belle Epoch," plastic flowers from one of Tucson's own dollar stores are piled below a whirring glass Ferris wheel that's 8 feet high. ("We don't like to use the term 'found objects,'" Einar said. "We put so much time into finding things.")

The de la Torres' Ferris wheel is a thing of kitschy beauty. Held up by two bright-blue oil derricks, it's strewn with Mexican masks and flowers. Multiple wheels turn round and round, gleaming in yellow and red. Doctored photos behind curving glass picture a cornucopia of pop images: a Coca-Cola sign, a skull and crossbones, a woman in sunglasses.

But this amusement-park ride goes far back in time. Its circular structure is inspired by the Aztec calendar, and at its center is the head of an Aztec god. The wheels turn at different speeds, conjuring up time both sacred and mundane, Jamex de la Torre says.

Only belatedly do you notice the human hearts at the end of every spoke. Torn from imaginary bodies, the hearts circle around, dipping again and again into blood-red liquid pooled in a canoe on the floor. This Ferris wheel, it turns out, is also a metaphor for the human sacrifice practiced by the ancient Aztecs and for the slaughter of the indigenous in the Spanish conquest that followed.

Make no mistake: The brothers' playful art is also deadly serious.

"Post-Columbian History" literally gives the finger to Mexico's colonial oppressors. Affixed to the wall, a glass boy is dressed like an Indian, with a pre-Columbian jaguar mask on his head and yellow and black feathers covering his body. Strung from his neck like a necklace are six severed human hands. In three of them, the middle finger is defiantly raised. (Take that, Attorney General Tom Horne.) A skinny dog delivers his own visceral comment on the Conquest, emitting a cloud of gas from his hind quarters.

Mexican lucha libre ("free fight") wrestlers are generally thought of as comical characters, particularly after Jack Black played one in the movie Nacho Libre. They dress in shiny costumes and perform anonymously in colorful masks. They're so tempting visually that "it's hard NOT to use the wrestler—a choreographed grown man in tights," Einar says. One of the many wrestlers in Borderlandia, "Bethlehem Boy,'' is made of royal blue glass, with his face, eyes and mouth bordered in canary yellow.

The de la Torre brothers say they have divined an ancient precedent for the costumed wrestler. In Aztec art, sculptures depicted warriors wearing the flayed skin of a slain opponent, a practice meant to endow them with the dead man's courage.

"To us, there's a direct link with the masked wrestler," says Einar.

"And a metaphor for the immigrant" of today, says Jamex, completing his brother's thought, "wearing someone else's skin."

"Bethlehem Boy" certainly plays that part. He looks wan and forlorn, his yellow mouth downturned like that of a classic melancholy clown. He holds a real-life measuring tape in his hands, and he's pulled it open, trying to see if he measures up.

Another recurring motif is the cauldron set atop burning logs. It honors Mexican popular crafts—think of the terra cotta flowerpots you can pick up in Nogales or Agua Prieta—and shows a nostalgia for the cannibal stewpots that were once a staple of American cartoons. Stir in a little ancient Mayan and Aztec human sacrifice, and you've got the perfect multicultural metaphor.

"Kidney Bean Pot," a typical example in shiny green and brown glass, has human kidneys for handles, and a Pre-Columbian head on its front, all teeth and tongue and staring eyes.

This show is not for the sensitive. There's at least one erect penis, all cheerful and shiny in clear glass. And the brothers rework and subvert Mexico's adopted Catholicism. Devils abound, but they get an assist from the Jersey Devil, a folkloric figure that haunts the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, where the brothers recently did an arts residency.

Their Virgins of Guadalupe don't necessarily get a treatment the pope would approve. One virgin has a face that's just one big eye, and others have been reduced to the shape of her flaming aura: If you take the Mary figure out of her flames, the brothers found, you have the shape of the vagina and the labia, "the portal of life."

The crucifixion of Jesus on the cross—Christianity's own image of human sacrifice—is given a borderlands spin. "Crossing the Desert," a pedestal piece in glass and mixed media, memorializes the deaths of migrants in Southern Arizona. (The latest count is 2,140 bodies found, from 2000 to 2010.)

A brown-skinned migrant has been crucified on a bright-green Arizona saguaro. The death scene merges New World and Old World religion. His grimace is like an Aztec death head's, but his white loin cloth is like Jesus'. Blood drips from the wounds in his hands and feet, where he's been nailed to the cactus.

His crown of thorns is purely modern, though. It's a blue sweatband, and across it are the words "taco time," a reference to the restaurant labor he hoped to perform in America.

"This guy was sacrificed on a saguaro," Einar said. "The piece is an homage to the people who sacrifice themselves in the desert to bring us cheap tacos."

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