We Went To Mexico: Reading Comprehension Test

by Paddy Johnson and Michael Anthony Farley on February 3, 2016 MEXICO + We Went To...

piano player

Marina Rosenfeld plays the piano at Josef Strau’s “Loyalties” at House of Gaga

Josef Strau: Loyalties
House of Gaga
Amsterdam 123
Colonia Condesa Mexico D.F. 06100

What’s on view: Sculptures of pianos made from wood wrapped in hammered metal, similarly-textured 2D works on the wall, mixed-media collages with paragraphs of text, a performance from pianist Marina Rosenfeld, and TV monitors displaying live surveillance footage of all the galleries.

Michael: Perhaps because there was so much text here, I kept looking for some type of art-historical footnote in the artwork. The piano sculptures seemed to recall Anselm Kiefer, if he had sculpted instruments of music rather than aerial warfare. The metal “paintings” had a lot of forms evocative of surrealism, the text pieces and performance seemed like an homage to the beat generation. Everything here felt like a nod to various avant-garde movements of yesteryears. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or even deliberate.

Paddy: Agreed. Everything here looked very familiar. I’ve been trying to make sense of what some of this might mean: The chandeliers, the piano, the paintings, all wrapped in aluminum – is the material juxtaposition meant to read as a metaphor for class differences? I dunno. Those choices read as a little more deliberate to me, but they don’t add up to much. They’re relics from another time, but so what? The piano shell shape covered in metal and lit on the inside looks more like a coffin then anything designed for music. What was the purpose of the surveillance video in the back? I still can’t figure it out. It looks like what someone’s idea of what contemporary art is.

Michael: That aluminum wrapping—perhaps a commentary on “canned” signifiers of expression? I wonder how much of this was art about art and how much of it was genuinely neo-dadaist. Can you make a weird personal narrative text piece in 2016 that doesn’t look like it’s about Burroughs? Can you make an abstract-surrealist painting that doesn’t seem like a reference to Miró? What logical vocabulary is left to subvert when those gestures have already become signs themselves? I think sincerely nonsensical work asks a lot of contemporary viewers, and maybe that’s the point. There was a moment in the reception where the (extremely well-trained) pianist was performing a piece that went from lyrical to discordant and everyone was talking over her. No one was reading the text. There was a group of American art-bears in all Klein-blue suits (a trend Rea identified) talking so loudly and inanely that I am hoping they were plants and it was a performance. Immediately after they left a group of Bushwick-looking American girls in all-black took their place. Every Mexican and European in the room looked mortified. It seemed so synchronized I thought it was a planned aspect of the “happening”. If not, I’m a little embarrassed by my fellow art-tourist countrymen.


José León Cerrillo, installation view.

José León Cerrillo: nueva gramática, doble falta y las posibles
joségarcía, mx
Dresde 2
Colonia Juarez, 06600 Ciudad de México, D.F.

What’s on view: Clean minimal install of blue carpet marked by white taped out lines, cement ball sculptures, and medium-sized abstract paintings on wood with sections blocked out by plaster, letters, and pink gradients.

Paddy: First thing I noticed: The light in this space feels like an op art experience. It’s so bright, my eyes actually hurt. The effect reminded me of the David Malek show at Golden back in 2012, where he calibrated his lighting to orange monochromes. It was almost impossible to stay in the gallery for any length of time.

Now, José León Cerrillo’s lights didn’t force people out of the room, and it may be that this was just the gallery’s lighting. But it had the effect of making every gesture, line and object feel that much more precise. Between the taped out white lines on the carpet, the cement balls on sheets/towels, and the floating text in the paintings, I felt like I was in a surreal media showroom for a sportscasting agency.

I say that with a good deal of admiration for what’s been put together here. Every object and its placement seemed so carefully considered—a quality I would never ascribe to the Josef Strau show at House of Gaga discussed above. Take, for example, the use of text in both shows. While Strau’s Kafka-esque text collages barely hit my register, the use of text in José León Cerrillo show “nueva gramática, doble falta y las posible” seemed to be about creating hierarchies, movement and flow. The forms of these letters related to the sculpture forms, the carpet and the other paintings. It’s an incredibly cohesive show and a pleasure to look at. I hope I get to see more of Cerrillo’s work!

Michael: I loved this show. I thought a lot about the use of text in both shows as well—in one piece in particular, random letters were grouped together in formations that looked like chemistry diagrams of various compounds. But they’re not describing any formulas—they’re creating a step-and-repeat pattern like Islamic tiling. We’re used to seeing calligraphy in Arabic and accepting it as a decorative motif—literally “arabesque”—but here it’s the sans-serif, familiar Roman alphabet used as wallpaper. It gives new meaning to the term “wall text” in a gallery. I similarly liked the digitally-printed garment half-buried in the concrete sphere like a contemporary archeological artifact. I usually don’t like artwork that looks too zeitgeist-y, but here that felt deliberate. As if the tropes of “now” were made “other” and mysterious for some intrepid anthropologist trying to assign meaning to the art and design of 2016. What must our vast expanses of sports fields with their crisp white chalk lines look from an alien training their telescope on North America? Probably something nonsensical and ritualistic, like that carpeting. Cerillo succeeded in making the mundane feel exotic and illogical, which was a great contrast to Strau’s work—where attempts at embracing a break from rationality felt all too familiar.

Show Images


Strau at Gaga

Josef Strau’s piano coffin at House of Gaga

Strau at Gaga

Seriously, did Strau wrap a Miro in aluminum foil? Because it really looks like it.


The surveillance video being surveilled. Haha!


blah blah

José León Cerrillo, installation view of two paintings.


José León Cerrillo, installation view.


José León Cerrillo, Painting detail.

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