Immersing Myself in Helen Escobedo’s “Total Environments”

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Immersing Myself in Helen Escobedo’s “Total Environments”

With the exception of a single photographer, there were no other visitors in the galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Monterrey (MARCO) when I arrived just 50 minutes before the official opening of Helen Escobedo’s solo exhibition. For the last year, I’ve been researching Escobedo’s legacy for my master’s thesis at Hunter College, but until this summer, I hadn’t seen a single one of her works in person — few are housed in collections in the United States. On that balmy August afternoon, I found myself alone and surrounded by over 100 of them. Maybe it was the faint tangerine light of the early dusk, streaming through one of the museum’s distinctive deep-set windows and lending the space the quiet splendor of a cathedral, but I felt like she was there with me.

Helen Escobedo: Ambientes totales (“Total Environments”), curated by Lucía Sanromán and Paloma Gómez Puente, takes its title from the Mexican artist’s credo that art should not only be seen but also inhabited and activated by people. A selection of work spanning 1969 to 2010, from drawings and collages to sculptures and models for both realized and unrealized public art projects, is anchored by four major and infrequently exhibited so-called “ephemeral” installations. One such piece is Escobedo’s “Corredor blanco (Pasaje blanco)” (1969), an immersive L-shaped pathway of white-lacquered plywood panels infinitely replicated through the placement of a mirror at one end. It was initially conceived for the second Independent Salon held in 1969 at the University Museum of Sciences and Arts (MUCA) in Mexico City, one of several institutions Escobedo helmed during her lifetime. As I traversed the maze-like environment, the alternating positive and negative elements and modulations of light and shadows produced a shifting, buzzing quality rather than a static experience of space. Its placement at the entrance of MARCO’s exhibition was like a doorway into Escobedo’s world.

“Corredor blanco (Pasaje blanco)” (1969) (courtesy Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, DGAV–UNAM)

Escobedo emerged as a key figure of the post-ruptura generation, a time when artists in Mexico were grappling not only with the legacy of the early Modernist muralists, but with the efforts of those who had already begun to rebel against that legacy in the middle of the century. The term “ruptura” appears in Octavio Paz’s 1950 essay on Rufino Tamayo, though the movement’s foundational text is decidedly José Luis Cuevas’s 1956 manifesto “La cortina de nopal” (“The prickly pear curtain”), a declaration against the ostensibly outdated art of a “limited, provincially nationalist Mexico.” By making abstract, monumental works that could be understood through their resonance with nature and their immediate surroundings, works that were not exclusively legible to a regional audience, Escobedo helped clear the path for the new era of Mexican contemporary art. Meanwhile, her role as a museum administrator, beginning with MUCA, mirrored the aims of her personal practice, encompassing exhibitions of international artists and support for an emergent local art scene.

In October 1968, just two weeks after the notorious Tlatelolco massacre in which the government murdered 325 student protesters, the artist-run Salón Independiente opened as a defiant antidote to the nation’s official art exhibition, which allowed only Mexican artists to participate. Escobedo was among its founding members.

Installation view of Helen Escobedo: Ambientes totales with the artist’s model for “Coatl” (1980) (image courtesy MARCO)

The first of four sections in Ambientes totales, titled “Inhabiting geometry,” includes “Sui generis” (1970), the hand-painted Volkswagen Beetle that Escobedo drove around Mexico City, as well as drawings and maquettes for some of her most well-known works. These include a miniature version of “Coatl” (1980), a traversable, coil-like structure in shades of yellow, orange, and red. It was conceived for the Espacio Escultórico, a sculpture park raised on the rugged volcanic landscape of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and its name and undulating body are tributes to the region’s native rattlesnakes.

“Vertical landscapes,” in the next gallery, takes us through a period in which Escobedo used metal grating to build structures that disappear into their environments. This medium, and the artist’s newfound conical and cylindrical forms, permitted a more seamless integration with the organic world. “El espíritu de los árboles” (“The spirit of the trees”) (1990, 2006, 2008), exhibited in the Ordrupgaard Museum in Denmark, in Mexico’s Desert of the Lions National Park, and finally in Escobedo’s own garden, features concentric columns of woven metal in warm tones that yield a glimmering moiré effect.

Small sculptures by Helen Escobedo in the Vertical Landscapes section of the show, with “Barda caída” (“Falling fence”) (1979) at left (courtesy MARCO)

Even more interesting to me, despite or perhaps because of their reduced scale, were the geometric sculptural models presented at varying heights on a stepped platform. A wall text refers to works such as “Barda caída” (“Falling fence”) (1979) as “exercises,” which is accurate, but they were also artworks in their own right. When her often ambitious proposals for sculptural interventions were not brought to fruition — and even when they were — Escobedo collaged pictures of her designs onto photographs of landscapes or urban areas, opting for a limitless notion of artistic realization. The form of “Barda caída,” for example, is echoed in “Monumento al cigarro” (1983), a small collage rendering of an imagined “monument to the cigarette,” featuring a circle of skinny poles toppling on each other like dominoes.

“El monumento al gran taco” (1993) (courtesy Fondo Artístico Helen Escobedo and Galería Proyectos Monclova)

This alternative mode of bringing her visions to life takes its most absurd and satisfying form in “Monumento al gran taco” (“Monument to the Great Taco”) (1993), another collage depicting one of her envisaged public interventions. The piece was made a year after Escobedo co-published, along with photographer Paolo Gori, the book Mexican Monuments: Strange Encounters, which was the culmination of the pair’s journey across the country documenting public sculpture. The publication is a not-so-subtle wink to the musty nationalism and heroification of many state-sponsored artworks.

Fittingly dubbed “Counter-Monuments to the Quotidian,” the third section of the show also centers two large-scale ephemeral installations. “La muerte de la ciudad” (“The Death of the City”) (1990) addresses the need to create dignified living spaces through the literal accumulation of garbage. Bags of trash are piled up in a narrow space that must be transited to be experienced, illustrating the oppressive impact that improper garbage disposal and pollution has the environment as well as on people. The second work, “Moda papalotera” (“Kite fashion”) (2000, 2010), consists of black plastic cutouts evoking simple sewing patterns that are suspended from the ceiling in a cheeky critique of the retail industry. Both of these installations epitomize Escobedo’s mid-to-late-career transition away from the massive and vibrantly colored sculpture that once defined her practice and toward something more difficult to look at. Indeed, the works are not easy on the eyes, nor do they succeed fully as social commentary, lacking the visual magnetism to truly stir one’s empathy.

Helen Escobedo, “Los mojados” (2005, 2010) (courtesy MARCO)

The last work in the show, to which the fourth and final section is entirely dedicated, does accomplish this aim of galvanizing our emotions. In the near-total darkness of an isolated room is a haunting phalanx of life-sized figures suggested by raincoats dangling from wire hangers, quivering faintly as a fan whirrs robotically in the background. “Los mojados” (“The Wet Ones”) (2005, 2010), one of Escobedo’s late works, references the plight of migrants crossing borders and reveals her ability to convey a strong humanitarian message through minimal, humble materials.

Drawings and watercolors by Helen Escobedo, with preparatory sketch for “Puertas al Viento” (“Gateway to the Wind”) in the top row, center left (Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

One small and unassuming gem of a work might slip by visitors unfamiliar with Escobedo’s oeuvre: A 22-by-19-inch preparatory watercolor for “Puertas al viento” (“Gateway to the Wind”) (1968), the artist’s first large-scale public artwork. The 50-foot-high concrete sculpture was one of several commissioned by fellow artist Mathias Goeritz for the 10-mile route that linked the different venues of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Escobedo designed the structure to be seen by citizens on speeding cars, not unlike other post-Modernist urban art of that era in Mexico; its glittering green and blue stripes evoked the nearby alfalfa fields of Cuemanco and the sweeping sky overhead. Watery, soft, and abstract, overlaid in geometric swaths of deep reds absent from the realized sculpture, this little boceto (“sketch”) is the perfect representation of Escobedo’s aesthetic sensuousness.

It’s impossible to encapsulate Escobedo’s creative range, comedic timing, and multifaceted contributions to Mexican art in a single exhibition, and a second iteration of Ambientes totales, opening in June in Mexico City’s Laboratorio Arte Alameda, could be an opportunity to include different works and dive into certain topics — such as Escobedo’s significant architectural oeuvre and maybe even her transformation of Juan O’Gorman’s cave house.

The exhibition at MARCO conveys what made Escobedo’s art so alluring — and the artist herself, as so many remember and I imagine her, irresistible: She did not take herself too seriously. An anecdote shared by New York-based artist Merle Temkin, who met Escobedo when they both participated in an international sculpture exhibition in 1987, captures her essence and joie de vivre. Temkin recalls the day when Escobedo died in 2010 and she received an email, pre-written by the artist and sent out by her daughter, announcing her own death. She was “already on a great trip,” Escobedo said in the obituary she wrote for herself, and “traveling with no baggage.”

Helen Escobedo: Ambientes totales continues at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey (Juan Zuazua, Padre Raymundo Jardón y Centro, Monterrey, Mexico) through December 31. The exhibition was curated by curated by Lucía Sanromán and Paloma Gómez Puente.

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