Climbing Fences

How's this for topicality? Just as the subject of immigration is sweeping the country, getting more heated and complicated by the day, the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood presents "Signals/Señales," an exhibition featuring work by contemporary Mexican artists addressing current social issues in that culture. More specifically, these artists, many of whom live near the volatile border with the United States, deal with questions directly related to facets of our current national debate.

Then why is "Signals/Señales" so unsatisfying? There's a halfhearted feel to the whole enterprise, as if guest curator Laura Burns had been invited to organize an exhibition and this is the best she could throw together.

Her introduction to the show starts with a simple definition of a signal as "an object placed to convey notice or warning — an object used to transmit or convey information beyond the range of the human voice." And the rest of the introduction is, in fact, more interesting than most of the art.

Burns talks about Ciudad Juárez, the Chihuahua city across the Río Bravo from El Paso, Texas, that has grown to a million and a half people since NAFTA brought many maquiladoras, or assembly plants, to the area. She talks about gang culture and what she calls the narcotrades.

And she vividly characterizes the U.S.-Mexico border area as "a strange place [that] exists on the cusp of two cultures and two languages, where a melding of Spanish and English, Mexican and North American, has created a distinct vocabulary and a view of the world that is neither 'here' nor 'there.' It's filled with people who work and shop on both sides of the line, a place filled with cars and trucks moving from country to country, with people transacting multicultural messages that don't need a passport to cross the divide."

But these artists' messages, for the most part, get lost in their media. An early exception is a trio of large oil paintings in the main gallery by Lenin Márquez (which has the ring of a name adopted for political purposes). It's called Testigos Orgánicos (Organic Witnesses) and features the horizontal bodies of faceless men bound at the wrists and lying on the ground, overlaid with foliage and stylized borders.

The text panel points out that the artist lives in Culiacán, Sinaloa, which also happens to be the home of Jesús Malverde, described as the patron saint of narcotraffickers. The city is the center of the Mexican drug cartels, and there is an average of two drug-related murders per day. But the images are strong enough to suggest repression and torture anywhere in our astonishingly violent world.

Two small sculptures nearby are as banal as the paintings are powerful. One, using a headlight and paint, is dubbed Qué Monito Soy (I'm So Cute); the other incorporates a spray can and clay and is called Todos Tenemos un Monstruo a Dentro (We All Have a Monster Inside). Both are credited to "Colectivo Rezizte, Yorch." It's not until near the very end of the exhibition, however, that we learn that Colectivo Rezizte, also known as Maskara 656, is a collective of politically committed artists, each of whom has adopted a presumably significant one-word name — Yorch, for instance, is the artistic pseudonym of Jorge Pérez. It would have been useful to have this information at the beginning of the show. Even so, Yorch's sculptures seem to exist in their own world, sealed off from us in their obscurity.

Similarly obscure but more impressive on their own terms are two oil paintings by Elina Chauvet. The intentionally garish Con la Música por Dentro (Interior Music) includes a tube of lipstick, crosses, and a large segment from a puzzle. And the enigmatic La Ruta Silenciosa (Silent Path) is a well-balanced composition dominated by a faintly ghostly image of a young girl riding a bicycle. Next to her floats a large valentine; other elements include a child's crude drawing of a house, the outlines of circles, the word My in large red letters, a red sash that streams behind the girl from her waist, and a written word hovering at the top of the painting, rendered indecipherable by a smear of yellow paint. The only things suggesting a statement or commentary are the three arrows, all labeled N (presumably for north), pointing in three directions, although not the one in which the girl is headed.

The rest of the exhibition is strewn with installations of videos that are less-than-compelling. Likewise, most of the photography is nothing out of the ordinary. Alfonso Guerara's three Los Naipes C-prints, for example, from a series called "Cholo Wear," aren't much more than a trite hip-hop compilation of graffiti and street kids in baggy clothes who could come from anywhere. There's nothing to tie them to a specific time and place in any meaningful way. Only the dozen tiny black-and-white photos that make up Adrián Caldera's Lape-Laboratorio de Fotografía Experimental have any resonance, and it's mostly as studies in form and contrast.

About midway through the show, there's a wall posted with an explanation of what isn't there: a grid of small (13 inches square) paintings by students of Verónica Leiton, another artist in the show. There were to be 30 works by former gang members, ages 16 to 23, from a neighborhood on the fast-growing west side of Ciudad Juárez, but they were unable to get clearance to pass through U.S. Customs.

Curator Burns indicates that, even though they got mired in paperwork, "it is important for their presence to be known, however, because they represent a significant kind of art production in Ciudad Juárez." She goes on to describe grassroots organizations that work with disadvantaged children and teenagers, using art as a "positive force that can steer people away from the seemingly inevitable cycle of drug use and violence."

It's a bitter irony, Burns notes, that "while there exists a very complex and sophisticated drug smuggling infrastructure between Mexico and the United States," these 30 paintings weren't able to enter the country legally. That's a shame, because they might have more fully fleshed out this frustrating exhibition, which has lofty goals but falls far short of them.

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Michael Mills