Mestizo Gallery is a small space tucked in a coffee shop of the same name on the northwest side of town. But don’t let its unassuming façade fool you: big things are happening there. Mestizo functions as a primary cultural and artistic center in an area of Salt Lake City where little else of the like currently exists. Ruby Chacon, who is currently being honored as one of Utah’s 15 most influential artists at the Rio Gallery and was a co-founder of Mestizo, had some of her early exhibitions there; and the institute’s new interim director and gallery curator has a lot of ideas for moving forward and making Mestizo a more prominent feature in the Salt Lake art scene. I sat down with him to talk about his background, his ideas, and to have a little discussion about the current exhibit.
Renato Olmedo-González was born in Mexico and lived there for the better part of his young life, making many visits to Salt Lake City to visit his grandmother. When he was 15-years old, he moved here with his mother and siblings following his parents’ divorce. He attended the University of Utah, where he did a double major in Latin American Studies and Art History, graduating just a few months ago at the end of the Fall 2013 semester. While in school he volunteered with Artes de México en Utah for three years. It was there he met Jorge Rojas, a board member as well as gallery director at Mestizo. Last fall Rojas invited him to curate an exhibit at Mestizo, and this month Olmedo-González took over his new responsibilities as director and curator of the space —a sure sign of confidence in someone so young and newly graduated.
As an organization, Mestizo hopes to show work that is not only of high quality, but also has the ability to spark a conversation, and Olmedo-González has started to do that in a very literal sense. Under his direction, the gallery hosted its first night of artist presentations for the current exhibit, which gave the artists a chance to provide background on their work, which not only fosters greater conversation about the art, but also improves the impact of the exhibits through understanding. The presentations are an example of the kinds of things Olmedo-González plans to implement that will hopefully foster a sense of community and increase visibility for those represented by Mestizo. While Olmedo-González admits to some trepidation at the prospects presented by his position, he speaks with passion and a level of confidence that shows he is up to the task, and he’s off to a good start.
Mestizo’s current exhibit showcases mixed media works by Sonia Pentz and an elaborate installation by Nadia Rea Morales. Upon first glance, any viewer could easily suppose that the exhibition was a pre-planned collaborative effort between Morales and Pentz, but in fact the two never met each other until they were in the space, ready to install their work. Pentz was the first artist chosen for this exhibit, and the paring of Nadia’s installation with her works was a combined decision by Renato and Jorge Rojas; both were familiar with her work from previous exhibits and. The most obvious reason that the two artists mesh so well is that their work is aesthetically tied through the butterfly. Pentz’s pieces contain both literal and figurative references to the monarch butterfly, while Morales’s installation is a massive ‘swarm’ installation of thousands of paper monarchs titled “Zacuanpapalotls,” the Spanish word for the species as well as the name of a poem by Brenda Cárdenas that partly inspired the work.
Pentz’s “Butterfly Project” is the most initially drawing aspect of the exhibit when one enters the gallery. It is a three-paneled altarpiece painted on old doors that acts as a tribute to the Mirabal sisters, who were freedom fighters during the military dictatorship of the Dominican Republic. The base of the piece is littered with votive candles, flowers, funeral programs for each of the three sisters, and various other items that you might find on any memorial — except perhaps the hand grenade. Her other major piece is an incredibly complex assembly of old cardboard boxes that have been painted on and some turned into intimate dioramas. There are also jars and books that have been filled with images that Pentz brought with her when she immigrated form Uruguay that are of her when she was young and people she knew. These pieces all speak to the idea of memory and how it is that we go about trying to contain or preserve it.
Morales’s installation is impressive on both the large and small scale. When you first enter the gallery, the quantity of butterflies combined with their organic-seeming placement and the slightest hints of movement from air flow makes one second-guess whether or not the space is actually filled with living butterflies. The realization that they are all printed on paper doesn’t detract from the initial impression, but actually adds another layer of wonderment as one thinks about the effort that, no doubt, went in to cutting out each individual butterfly. Morales used different papers printed in different sizes and shapes, the result being that inspection of the installation reveals many subtle variations in color saturation and texture that are extremely beautiful in their simplicity. Morales’s work has always contained a sense of companionship, but it is more present than ever in this exhibit; she enlisted the help of her family and friends to cut butterflies and invited them to assist in the installation process mirroring the sense of community displayed by the monarchs in their massive migration from Canada to Mexico. This is one of the aspects that Olmedo-González is most satisfied with in the exhibit, saying that it shows “the power of art to bring people together.”
Beyond their aesthetic compatibility, Pentz and Morales share some thematic elements in their work. Both stress the importance of family and cultural history. Pentz’s memory jars and books are reminders of her childhood in Uruguay and her use of recycled materials keep her conscious of the struggles her family faced when she was growing up. When asked why she paints on old cardboard boxes during her artist presentation, she said that it is a reference to her family reusing containers however they could, mentioning that “we didn’t recycle because we were tree-huggers, we recycled because we had to.” Morales’s work is also extremely conscious of the struggles her own family faced through their immigration to the United States when the artist was just 4 months old. The migration of the monarchs and the legends that they are the returning souls of lost loved ones speaks to her family’s own migration and transformation made to ensure their future.
Both artists also have undertones of activism in their work. Pentz’s ‘Butterfly Project’ speaks to the brutality of imperialism in South America, a lot of which was aided either financially or militaristically by the U.S., and some of the images in her memory jars, she explained, were of ‘the disappeared,’ people that went missing during militaristic rule because of their anti-government sentiments. Morales’s piece calls attention to environmental issues. In her artist presentation she remarked that this installation is partially meant to serve as a warning that “the monarchs are dying.” At their record peak in the mid ‘90s the monarchs covered more that 44.5 acres in the forests of Mexico, compared to a devastating low of 1.65 acres last year. Nadia hopes that her installation will raise this issue and cause more people to take an active interest in trying to help save this natural wonder.
This exhibit and the artist presentations represent one of the most important wishes that Olmedo-González has for Mestizo as he begins his tenure there. “I want to show art that is powerful, that invites conversation…that people leave here with something in mind and maybe then they will do something about it.” He is dedicated to showing work that “is not only beautiful, but also powerful.”
Jared Christensen holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography from Westminster College (’12). He has since worked at Tanner Frames, and has been exploring the effects of presentation and framing in his and others’ work. He will soon be pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts degree in Curatorial Practice at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.