Last fall I had the privilege of spending a couple of months in Puebla, Mexico, at Arquetopia, an artist residency program in the center of the city’s historical district. I spent most of my time doing research in local museums, churches, restaurants and food stands. My time there really moved me; witnessing the traditions of Day of Dead, visiting towns where artists truly master their millenarian and colonial crafts, and having religious experiences not only in churches but on street corners while eating the best food I have ever tasted. Puebla made me think of my art practice in a new way. In Mexico I had a different audience, and I wanted to make work that would make sense in my “motherland” while keeping my voice as a Latino American.
The following blog post by art historian and Arquetopia board member Emmanuel Ortega Rodriguez critically engages my work in a more historical context. This will be the first of two posts examining the work I made in central Mexico. – Justin Favela
Arquetopia is an international award-winning, artist residency in the heart of Mexico. Their artistic, cultural, and educational programs seek to promote development, social transformation and creative productivity. The main space is situated in the city of Puebla, whose inescapable colonial legacy has set the tone for the hundreds of residencies they have hosted in their six years of existence. At Arquetopia, artists, investigators and educators alike are encouraged to confront a set of socio-cultural preoccupations inherent in their projects. It was within this environment that Las Vegas artist, Justin Favela, initiated his six week residency this past October. While his time in Puebla coincided with the celebration of Day of the Dead, we decided to select an amalgam of photos that best represent the colonial legacy that he experienced throughout the duration of his residency.
Towards the end of the eighteenth-century the Academia de San Carlos was founded in Mexico as the first art academy in the Americas. The inception of “buen gusto” or French for “good taste”, as an artistic trope of official art production, became the dominant trope throughout the school’s history. The Academia de San Carlos established a curriculum that sought to create an image for the newly independent nation of Mexico. Artists such as Jose Maria Velasco worked under an environment where European romantic and neoclassic ideas replaced the baroque language of the colonial period. In this landscape of the valley of central Mexico, Favela re-appropriates a painting by Velasco by creating a painterly surface made by paper instead of oil on canvass. Tissue paper or “papel china” was introduced to the Americas via the Manila Galeon, (a sixteenth-century trading ship that for about half a century connected Asia and the Philippines to the Mexican pacific port of Acapulco) however, its application to papel picado and piñata making anchor its value to local artistic practices that have been deemed as inferior.
In Popocatepetl e Iztaccihuatl vistos desde Atlixco after Jose Maria Velasco, Favela introduces materials and techniques considered “popular” to recreate a painting that is more representative of nineteenth-century “high artistic” values. The interplay between both realms of artistic production places Favela’s images in a liminal stage where social commentary thrives. Furthermore, by collecting every color of tissue paper available in Puebla’s 8 Oriente street (famous for its paperlerias or paper stores), Favela utilizes the city’s palette to recreate a landscape that seeks to turn “buen gusto” inside-out through the utilization of mass produced materials and “popular colors.” Favela states: “ I equate the usage of tissue paper with celebration” as such, the papel mosaic after Velasco intends to merge romantic fantasies of Mexico as a nation, with a celebration of Pueblan artistic traditions.
“Pain is never permanent.” – Santa Teresa de Avila
When in Puebla, Favela was confronted with a different audience than in Las Vegas. The colorful tonality of his oeuvre was met with normalcy. Instead of seeking to stand out, Favela sought to blend with the environment. Throughout the colonial period, the mendicant orders of Spain left a strong presence in the city with the establishment of missions, churches, monasteries and convents. The religious past and present past of the city is materialized in its colonial built environment. Mainly, the ascetic life of the Augustinian nuns of Santa Monica intrigued Favela.
Mexican religious visual culture has an element of pain that dates back to the Spanish aggressive campaign of spiritual colonization against the native peoples of the Americas. From the 16th century onwards, mendicant orders such as the Franciscans, the Dominicans and Jesuits controlled the production of public religious images. Following the edicts of the Council of Trent, artists were commissioned to create art that connected with viewers in a visceral level. As a result, by the 18th century, the empire was full of images that centered around the pain of the passion of Christ, as well as generations of saints and martyrs thereafter. Puebla was not the exception. As one of the most important commercial centers of New Spain (name of the territories dominated by Spain prior to the 19th century Mexican independence), money flooded in the form of art. Santa Monica’s art collection reflects this past.
One motif that particularly impressed Favela was the countless reclining effigies of the fallen Christ, and the images of his burial (El Cristo Caído, El Entierro Sagrado). The iconography of these heartrending sculptures is absent from the the bible and subsequent apocryphal sources. However, their popularity in 17th century Latin American religious spaces is undeniable. The proximity and eye-level placement of these intense figures inside churches and conventual spaces captured Favela’s imagination, prompting him to respond with Self Flagellation Celebration ( here therefore referred to as FC). The original star shape of piñatas, in Mexico, represent the seven deadly sins, the fruit and candy inside, the evil temptations. Favela re-appropriates the form, but reconfigures its shape to emphasize the ascetic life of nuns in Mexico. The piñata, which was installed outside the church of the convent of Santa Ines, completely lacks the traditional use of color, resembles a medieval mase, and other instruments of auto-flagellation Favela saw as part of the permanent collection of daily conventual objects in Santa Monica. The red streamers make reference to human blood, creating thus a devotional object that aims to emphasize the catholic tradition of violence in Puebla.
Emmanuel Ortega is a Curator and a Doctoral Candidate in Ibero-America colonial art history from the University of New Mexico. He also is an Adjunct Instructor at the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Since 2007 he has investigated images of violence in the Novohispanic context. For his master’s thesis Ortega investigated images involving autos-de-fe organized by the Novohispanic inquisition. For his Ph.D. dissertation Ortega researches visual representations of the New Mexico Pueblo peoples in Novohispanic Franciscan martyr paintings. He has contributed several entries for the Khan Academy website and the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies online bulletin. He has presented his work in the XXXVI Annual Colloquium of Art History organized by the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2012, the College of Art Association and American Studies Association in 2015. Also, in 2015, Ortega partnered with the Museo de Arte Religioso Ex-Convento de Santa Mónica in Puebla México to curate two art exhibitions based on recently restored paintings from their permanent collection.
Justin Favela is a Las Vegas native working in the mediums of painting, sculpture, and performance. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Studio Arts from UNLV. He has participated in exhibitions across the United States. Las Vegas venues include the Contemporary Arts Center, Trifecta Gallery and The Clark County Government Center. His work draws from art history, popular culture and his heritage. Mr. Favela has curated many shows throughout southern Nevada, from UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum to El Porvenir Mini-Market in North Las Vegas. When Justin is not in the studio, he is probably watching TV on the Internet. Upcoming, his work will be highlighted in the group exhibition “Tilting the Basin: Contemporary Art of Nevada” at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. His piece, Popocatepetl e Iztaccihuatl vistos desde Atlixco after Jose Maria Velasco is currently on view in the Contemporary Arts Center’s Annual Juried Exhibition in downtown Las Vegas through April 29.
Posted by Wendy Kveck