Art Basel Hong Kong Introduces Cisco Jiménez

PUEBLA, Mexico — At 52 and with nearly three decades of exhibitions behind him, Cisco Jiménez is far from new to art making or the gallery world, and in Mexico, where he lives, he is something of a living legend, who broke into the visual art world during the graffiti movement in the 1990s and maintained a career ever since.

But here it is, featured this month at Art Basel Hong Kong in the Discoveries section, a section of the fair where galleries showcase the newcomers they hope will break through to collectors.

It’s funny, acknowledged Mr Jiménez, and it’s one of the idiosyncrasies of the international art trade that has brought him both highs and lows. Its exhibitor, MAIA Contemporary in Mexico City, understands that its fame does not extend entirely to Asian markets. So the lineup introduces him to a new audience, but with the urgency of being one of the next big things it should know.

“I will be presented as an eternally up and coming artist,” he joked, though he made it clear that the staging makes some sense. “It’s a totally new experience for my work. I will have to confront a new audience and from a distant context in all senses.”

Geographically, that distance runs all the way from Art Basel to Cuernavaca, in the state of Morelos, where the artist had a studio for a long time. But there’s also a cultural divide because his work is so specific to Mexico and full of references that define contemporary art here: Latin American politics and current affairs, drug violence, the ubiquitous influence of US-made pop culture, and how much of what happening today may be associated with the colonial upheaval that began five centuries ago.

Throughout his career, Mr. Jiménez created this portrait of Mexico, using common artist tools such as paint, pen, clay, and carvings, as well as a host of discarded objects he collects on the street: old shoes, children’s toys, rusty saws, broken plates, cheap religious totems, and boom boxes. mr. Jimenez uses a lot of boomboxes.

He has designed thousands of individual works, acrylic paintings, fabrics, hand-chiseled sculptures and more that connect together as an image of his country as a whole and of Cuernavaca in particular.

In his view, those places are defined by their opposites—the things that come to the surface and the various truths that lie beneath—and his art illustrates that idea, sometimes literally. His paintings often unfold like anatomical or archaeological diagrams, with schematic cutouts that loosen layers so viewers can see the inconsistencies within. There is a sense of a stable exterior, but a tumultuous core.

He often paints or draws internal views of stomachs, hair follicles or other organs. An example is his 2014 painting ‘Triperío’, which the artist intended to capture the essence of being Mexican. It’s just a comic book-colored depiction of intestines with various food bubbles traveling through them with labels like “chilaquiles con pollo” and “huevos con chorizo”. People really are what they eat, he explained.

Mr Jiménez does not shy away from vulgarity; his anatomical studies often involve genitals and they are usually exaggerated. Nor does he shy away from political commentary; one of his most recent works is a series of fake ceramic pistols. The artist conceived the pieces and commissioned native women in the nearby state of Guerrero to craft them using age-old pottery techniques from their region.

Both the grotesque and the shocking have serious aesthetic purposes. They draw viewers in, where they then use the more sophisticated social observations of Mr. meet Jimenez. For example, the weapons are intended to show how people in Guerrero, now the site of frequent narco violence, are finding ways to survive and maintain their lifestyle.

Those boomboxes are symbols of the prosperity that Mexicans see across the border with the United States, but which is often out of reach at home because of the economic conditions. When he was young and listening to bands like Talking Heads and U2, images of boomboxes were all over the media, but he couldn’t afford one himself, he said.

That desire has shaped him and the metaphor has lingered in his work. For another recent piece, he collected old boomboxes and answering machines and gave them to other ceramists in Morelos to replicate in clay.

“He goes back to the same preoccupations, the same symbols, and reuses them over time,” said Tobias Ostrander, a veteran of Mexico City’s art scene and now deputy curator of Latin American art for the Tate Museum in London. “But they can mean different things at different times.”

Other images and objects that recur in Mr Jiménez’s work are volcanoes, which can symbolize masculinity and power; sacred artifacts from both Catholicism and pre-Hispanic religions that have contributed to the deep rift in modern Mexican identity; and the wooden boxes shoe shiners carry, which to the artist represent the resilience of people finding a way to make a living even when conditions are bleak.

“As an artist, I take all these energy, materials and objects and with a few changes they are transformed into works of art that hold a rich variety of lessons and meanings,” he said.

It may be that repetition, or perhaps his willingness to steer his work in rough directions, that has challenged curators and critics to take him seriously at times.

“He is an interesting figure who has come in and out of visibility over the past 30 or 25 years in terms of interest in his work,” said Mr. Ostrander.

Mr Jiménez said he had grown accustomed to that fluidity and learned to adapt. Its original success came on a wave of wealthy collectors during the original dotcom boom and fell when the bubble burst. “I had to reinvent it,” he said. But he stopped worrying about making money and decided it was best to just make art.

His career is currently at a new peak. In addition to exhibiting at art fairs, he is the subject of a retrospective at the city of Puebla’s Museo Amparo, one of Mexico’s most prestigious show places. The exhibition, curated by Mr. Ostrander, includes hundreds of works and shows his entire professional production.

The artist said he enjoyed the moment and the attention, but that these days he was more interested in securing a legacy than building sales.

“He’s not passive with the work, but he’s passive with the art world,” explained Mr. Ostrander. “He wants to sell to make a living, but he’s not out to become the most famous artist in the world.”

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