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Frieda Toranzo Jaeger “Choque Cultural” at Lulu, Mexico City

by  Nika Simone Chilewich

The paintings in Choque Cultural, by Mexican artist Frieda Toranzo Jaeger, are a different breed of animal. They constitute something rare within the Mexico City art scene: a painting show that literally stops you in your tracks.

In the front gallery of the independent space Lulu in Mexico City, a beast of a painting, Tesla, looks out onto the street. The bold, erotic composition is a dense and deliberate layering of gestural, natural, and mechanical forms that are somewhere between Georgia O’Keeffe’s sexualized depiction of nature, the somber curation of Dutch vanitas painting, and the dramatic, mythological qualities of a Baroque altarpiece. Mounted on a thick, yellow horizontal line—the work’s most decidedly abstract form—an electric luxury car sits overturned. The hyperrealistic, anatomical structure cuts vertically through the pictorial plane, forming a crucifix that the artist constructs out of a reference to abstract form and a capsized symbol of masculinity. It is organic but not at all natural, feminine but by no means soft. The painting is explicit, didactic even, and the canvas is saturated. In it lies a layering of codes that reference the gendered history of painting as well as the spiritual nature of contemporary capitalist culture. The canvas pushes up against the painted medium, but placed on the floor, it resists falling into a purely representational state. Tesla contains a tapestry of figurative and abstract elements, but Toranzo Jaeger achieves a rare painterly synthesis between the subject of the work and its expressive form.

The exhibition, on view through August 18, is the Berlin-based artist’s first solo show in her home country. For the exhibition, curated by Lulu cofounder Chris Sharp, Toranzo Jaeger traveled to Mexico City to produce work specifically for the space. The artist, who is currently completing her MFA at the Kunstakademie Hamburg , makes work that addresses issues of gender and sexuality through an approach that melds a semiotics of capitalist visual culture with a methodical approach to painting. Each of the works in Choque Cultural constitutes a deliberate and varied deconstruction of the painted form and the pictorial plane. Toranzo Jaeger uses the car, particularly the electric car, as a symbol of masculinity and a motif that addresses the neocapitalist ideals of sustainability and renewability. In her work, the car becomes a means by which to confront cultural norms and to expose the varied histories embedded in Mexican art, in the history of painting, and in the gendered, hierarchical distinctions between popular and fine art traditions.

Toranzo Jaeger’s work is singular, unlike anything else in the Mexico City art scene. It is grotesque and seductive, familiar yet strange, and in Choque Cultural, Toranzo Jaeger establishes herself as a force to be reckoned with—as a painter, a Mexican artist, and a female cultural voice. In particular, her painterly treatment of Mexico’s visual culture breaks away from an artistic language tied to the country’s nationalistic pursuits and dominated by a male-driven tradition of didactic, sociopolitical, and economically motivated artistic narratives. Instead, Toranzo Jaeger integrates a vocabulary that is as global as it is embedded in contemporary Mexican culture. She effortlessly weaves together the country’s visual codes.

 In particular, it is her brazen ability to capture the Baroque qualities of Mexican culture, especially that of the norteño tradition, that makes her pictorial landscapes of car interiors and electrically polluted skylines so dynamic and uniquely contemporary. This ability is  apparent in the three smaller works in the exhibition: Retrato de lo inocenteSola y mala acompañada, and Y la Cheyenne apa’?

 Retrato de lo inocente and Sola y mala acompañada hang opposite each other in Lulu’s interior gallery. The two car interiors play like a mise-en-scène of driving north on the highway toward the Mexico/US border. The triptych Retrato de lo inocente depicts the neon interior of an electric BMW, complete with what looks like an animal-print steering-wheel cover. The windshield looks out onto a Technicolor sunset, and in the rearview mirror, the interior of the Prius in Sola y mala acompañada is reflected, indicating to the viewer that the cars are, in fact, in one lane of traffic. When closed, the two outer panels of Retrato de lo inocente contain an angular and abstractly depicted car hood and muffler. In what could be seen as a reference to Mexican Geometrismo painting, Toranzo Jaeger has filled the frame with gauche colors typical of ranchero car culture.

 In Retrato de lo inocente, the artist has also penetrated the painting’s surface with embroidered elements. This integration of embroidery is also present in the clouds that hang over the fading urban landscape being left behind by the car in Sola y mala acompañada. Embroidery is one characteristic of the artist’s work that overturns the pejorative notions of folk and craft underlying the patriarchal nature of Mexico’s and Latin America’s cultural norms. Whereas in Tesla, Toranzo Jaeger uses abstraction to expose the painting’s surface, in these two works, as well as in Y la Cheyenne apa’?, she literally breaks open the pictorial plane to a traditionally female practice, placing it above, over, and through the painted form.

 In Y la Cheyenne apa’?, Toranzo Jaeger again plays with the pictorial plane. The artist employs a dense use of color and a flatly constructed element in the top right corner of the canvas. That component, textile-like, is in contrast to the rest of the work, which is gestural, the paint applied in thin layers and the canvas exposed. In the main part of the work, she develops a scene common to the northern desert cities of Mexico: the palm tree and the pickup truck. However, the truck is totaled, and with it, its masculine connotations. The truck serves instead as the platform for an explicit lesbian group-sex scene. Displayed under an arch in the gallery, Y la Cheyenne apa’? is an altar to female sexuality, one in which masculinity is not just subverted, it is entirely beside the point.

 Together, the works in Choque Cultural express a sort of decadent optimism within the grotesque state of late-capitalist culture. Their protagonist, whether the artist or the viewer, is the empowered female subject

at Lulu, Mexico City

until 18 August 2018

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