The art and architecture of Pre-Columbian Mexico work together to produce an effect that is rightly described as “colossal,” and that’s the term artist Horacio Rodriguez uses to describe the larger-than-life ceramic heads that make up “Yuma 14.” A selection of them appropriately occupies the only solid wall in the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Art Gallery, an otherwise glass-walled space on the South State Street campus of Salt Lake Community College. Use of that one solid wall allows them to deliver some sense of the impact these seven colorful ceramic heads might have had when mounted on a pyramid, say, or as part of a ceremonial site. Six of the heads are arranged in a symbolically inverted pyramid, turning some of the largest and most famous structures on earth upside down, while a seventh, even larger one hangs nearby.
In only a few years, Rodriguez, who also serves as chair of MICA (the Mestizo Institute of Culture and Art), has identified himself with these forcefully present clay sculptures, which he slip casts in molds made from familiar objects like these ancient, architectural ornaments. The technique allows him to make multiple copies that he can decorate individually, so the variations create a compound statement. In “Yuma 14,” their superimposed imagery builds up a portrait of today’s psychically conflicting border experience using skulls, dollar signs, and iconic Southwestern flora and fauna such as cactus and citrus. In addition to colorful glazing, some are painted meticulously, others boldly, in enamels picked out with gold luster. Familiar to anyone who travels the roads near the US/Mexican border will be signs alerting drivers to families running for their lives across the freeway — as good an illustration of cultural miscommunication and clashing values as may be imagined.
The title of the exhibition anchored so effectively by “Yuma 14” is La Mortalidad, which is translated as Mortality. While the translation is technically correct, it obscures some of the ways the concept means different things in different places. This is particularly ironic in Utah, where two of the dominant cultures have in common one of their most important, indeed principal beliefs: that their ancestors and recently departed loved ones actually remain present and active in their lives. How two cultures from the East, one American and the other European, and two Southern cultures, one also European and the other Indigenous, came to have in common such an influential idea, possibly unbeknownst to themselves, is a story not well enough told. Perhaps La Mortalidad represents an early step in amending that omission.
Many travelers to Latin America return with enthusiastic reports of the celebration often called the Day of the Dead. Others will have encountered it in the Disney Pixar movie, Coco. Several works at SLCC refer to this event specifically, such as Ivan Ortega’s “La Ofrenda,” a linocut featuring such staples of the day as flowers, candles, drinks, and food in the form of cake and a sugar skull. Note that while the ofrenda is clearly based on the precedent of the Christian altar, its name actually means “offering.” Glossing over such distinctions may be convenient, but it doesn’t help transmit a true picture.
Many Norte Americanos return from the South with the idea not that Latin Americans consider death an inescapable dimension of life, but rather that they trivialize it when, for example, depicting skeletons engaged in everyday activities — like the party taking place on an alligator depicted by Kenneth Sanchez in “It’s Thursday,” which is burned into a wooden plank cut from a whole tree. Of course the subject matter mocks human frailty, but the skeletons serve to remind viewers that the revelers are, in fact, mortal — which they want to forget, but might do better to reconsider.
Any notion that such reminders have a trivializing purpose will be quickly dispelled in the presence of Ruby Chacón’s untitled serigraph. From a distance, it may be mistaken for an image of a child playing dress up, perhaps for a party. That idea is soon replaced when the viewer comes closer and the child’s place is taken by a woman who seems desperately ill, with shadows around her eyes and crusts on her lips. On further examination, she seems to be wearing a white mask, or makeup, either of which reveals at its extremes her discolored skin. Finally, a rip in the collar of her dress allows a glimpse of what could be an exposed skeleton underneath. If there’s a deception here, it’s one we all indulge to some degree: that death can be excluded from life, even in youth, while indeed every life, like every party, must end too soon. Chacón restores steps that are often omitted from the drama of mortality.
Thanks to the gallery’s use of partitions, which the glass enclosure makes necessary, some artists who submitted several works can have them shown together, forming coves in the viewing current. Also, large works can be isolated on adjacent walls, rather than having to be side-by-side. So three by Alejandro Martinez hang together, allowing such subjects as skulls, night, and the great Surrealist painter Remedios Varo to interact among them. Nearby, Alejandro Mendoza’s “Ancestros” uses a mix of butterfly symbolism and glyphs representing the door to the underworld to illustrate the Zapotec view of the enduring presence of the dead among the living, while viewers can fully appreciate its rich colors, fine details, and the sensuous texture of its weaving.
If life and death really are closer in the Latin American mind, so are arts and crafts. Peruvian Esther Marino’s representational landscapes are bright and full of detail, much like folk arts from as far away as Europe, but they have a presence in the room that calls the audience closer, where it turns out that these apparent paintings each combines and exploits an entire vocabulary of textile techniques.
While this may sound like a formula for sentimentality, it’s anything but. In “Idilio Nocturno (Nocturnal Idyll),” a young couple meets in the evening not because it’s romantic, but because economic circumstances prevent their being together and they are least likely to be caught at night. In “Los Rebeldes Velados: Los Tapadas Limenos,” or “The Veiled Rebels: The Veiled Women of Lima,” the 16th-century predicament of women denied by class from any public presence is depicted in a doll-like figure set into streets shown in the sort of needle work that might have been all she was otherwise permitted to do.
Some viewers may be upset by such a pervasive focus on mortality. A few works might disturb even the hardiest audience. But the work of mutual understanding has never been more pressing than right now. At least La Mortalidad leavens its view of death with a healthy context of life: one that is sensuous, colorful, and full of good spirits.
MORTALIDAD: Una cuestión de vida o muerte (A Matter of Life & Death), George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Art Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Nov. 17.