Salt of the earth

Sep 18, 2002 at 12:00 am
For someone who lives on the north side of the city, the Downriver landscape of metropolitan Detroit is mystically nostalgic. Instead of Lake St. Clair abruptly narrowing into the Detroit River and flowing, pushing, even surging toward you, the current flows away and leaves you. The river widens and divides around historic Fighting Island and then again around Grosse Isle, then flows away, pulling you off toward Lake Erie and further to the falls at Niagara, and further yet to the St. Lawrence and the maritime states and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s always a unique experience to go there.

Sitting on the Downriver banks is Wyandotte, a lovely gem of a town, and on Biddle Avenue (Wyandotte’s Woodward Avenue) there are a number of wonderful little shops and cafes. Among them is the Rivers Edge Gallery where a gem of an exhibition is fittingly situated. "Tres Caminos" ("Three Paths"), curated by former DIA photographer Marianne Letasi, reveals the work of three extraordinary artists who focus on issues of cultural origins and identity, converging in this smart little gallery.

Marco Garcia, Jose Antonio Gomez and Nora Chapa Mendoza all live and work in Southeast Michigan, but have deep ties to their Mexican and indigenous Indian origins. Each of their accomplished and diverse outputs explores or is driven by the powerful and diverse culture of Mexico. But what’s apparent from the outset is that each of the artists brings their historical background and artistic heritage into the practice of contemporary art.

Marco Garcia, who grew up in Mexico City and who teaches at the University of Michigan, combines a sophisticated view of historical identity with a richly inventive use of materials. His two-dimensional works are a deft mix of encaustic, resins and acrylic enamel to create mural-like images of figures embedded in metaphoric surfaces. They resonate with an archeological presence, like images found on Mayan temples, but with a modernist sensibility like the flat musicality of Matisse’s painting The Dance. Garcia’s Paisage arcquelogico inscribes a beautiful horizon of pale-blue resinous sky above an earthtone ground with two entwined figures "tattooed" with glyphlike painting. He uses a similar tattoolike painting on his three-dimensional sculptural figures that combines ritual poses, perhaps like those in Mayan temples, with everyday postures.

Well known in the Detroit art scene and active in the Hispanic cultural community, Nora Chapa Mendoza creates paintings and watercolors in an inventive mix of expressionistic drawing and painting styles. Her gorgeous palette is reminiscent of the folk paintings of Mexico, as well as its flamboyant and radiant architectural landscape. Dark Shadows (Sombras oscuras) is an abstract painting that reveals her vitality and soulful vision; Lady and the Wind (Mujer el viento) is an explosively erotic rendering of a female dancer. Mendoza’s paintings suggest a decidedly Mexican sensibility, but her work references Native American design and culture as well.

Jose Antonio Gomez, who teaches at the College for Creative Studies, is the most directly autobiographical of the three artists. The great French writer André Breton said that, with its hybrid mix of the exotic and brilliant pre-Columbian psychology and the ritualized darkness of Roman Catholic culture, Mexico was naturally surrealistic. Gomez captures this feature of life in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, his home.

In some 13 photographic works framed in a style that echoes the drama of the interiors of Mexican cathedrals, Gomez combines typical ritualized narratives of the Mexican Catholic church with the darker side of his memory. In The Transformation (La Transformacion), a bare-chested Mexican male has a skeletal chicken foot hanging from his neck, while his own hand seems to metamorphose into a chicken leg. In The Sacrifice (El Sacrificio), a wide-eyed Mexican boy wearing a crown of thorns symbolically offers up, sacrificing himself, a "holy card" showing a heart, "el corazon," to the viewer. A Dead Soul Who Cries (La Llorona — pictured) is the representation of a woman gone mad, perhaps because of not following the church. Gomez’s images are painfully dark yet illuminating constructions depicting the dark, painful beauty of Mexican culture.

"Tres Caminos" is installed on the second of the three floors of Rivers Edge Gallery amid other reproductions, photographs and original works of art that probably pay the rent. The exhibition is a bit crammed together and not ideal for appreciating the art, but is realistic given the circumstances. It’s a fine introduction to three fine artists.

"Tres Caminos" is at Rivers Edge Gallery, 3024 Biddle Ave., Wyandotte through Sept. 28. There will be an artists’ reception on Friday, Sept. 20, 6-9 p.m. Call 734-246-9880. Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]