New Southern California exhibitions reveal riches of art and tradition
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New Southern California exhibitions reveal riches of art and tradition
In an undated photo from Sergio Hernandez, his “La Vida de Japon (Life in Japan)” (2022), oil on 24-carat leaf on wood panel. Several museums in Southern California are celebrating Latino and Chicano art and artists across various mediums. (Sergio Hernandez via The New York Times)

by Eilene Zimmerman

SAN DIEGO, CA.- Most people probably know piñatas as ephemeral paper-and-cardboard sculptures, made to be smashed by children to get the treats hidden inside. But at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, they are complex, beautiful works of art and storytelling.

“Piñatas: The High Art of Celebration,” which runs from Oct. 29 to April 30, is just one of several exhibitions opening this fall in Southern California that celebrate the talents and works of Latino artists.

More than 80 piñatas are featured, including a 12-foot-long string of rosary beads, a life-size lowrider and swarms of tiny hummingbirds and Monarch butterflies.

Although the history of the piñata is not well documented, it is believed to have originated in ancient China, which had a tradition of shattering a ceramic ox full of seeds during a springtime ceremony, said Emily Zaiden, the guest curator of the Mingei exhibition.

Piñatas began appearing in northern Italy and Spain in the 16th century, Zaiden said, and were taken to Mexico by missionaries, who used them at Christmas celebrations to draw Indigenous peoples to the church. The show at the Mingei, she said, “pushes the idea of what a piñata can be — metaphors for Latinx identity and for the kinds of hierarchies and oppression that exist in society today, as well as political symbols.”

Diana Benavidez, a binational artist whose work is included in the exhibition (she is also the education specialist at the museum), first learned how piñatas were made as a child in Tijuana, Mexico, helping out at a friend’s candy shop. She was surprised at how much effort went into creating objects meant to be destroyed. “From that point on, I started to see piñatas as undervalued sculptures,” she said.

Isaías Rodríguez, an artist who teaches the craft of piñata-making through his business, My Little Piñatas, created an installation for the Mingei that features more than 200 hummingbirds and 300 Monarch butterflies, each a piñata no bigger than the palm of his hand. For Rodríguez, making piñatas is a celebration of his own history, as well as Chicano art and culture. “I identify as a third-generation Chicano from LA,” he said. “Growing up in a poor, working-class family in Boyle Heights, with 12 kids, we had our fair share of piñata events.”

Roberto Benavidez (who is not related to Diana), a sculptor originally from South Texas and now living in Los Angeles, contributed several piñatas, some of which take the form of fantastical creatures, like “Javelina Girl,” which has a shimmering, feathery turquoise-and-silver body.

Benavidez has said he draws inspiration from Hieronymous Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”

Opening in November at the San Diego Museum of Art is “Sergio Hernández: Embers of Oaxaca,” the first solo museum exhibition in the United States for this Indigenous Mexican artist. Hernandez is part of a long history of influential painters from the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Of the more than 30 works in the show, about half are monumental in scale; some of them are 10 feet wide, said Michael Brown, the exhibition’s curator.

“Many of the works center on the natural world and our place within it, as well as the history of the Indigenous peoples in and around Hernández’s native Oaxaca,” he said. Hernández often incorporates cochineal, a beetle-based red pigment developed by Indigenous artists before the Spanish conquest, into his work. He also uses Oaxacan sand and gold leaf, the latter a nod to the value of gold to the Aztecs, who controlled the area in the 1500s. The exhibition includes paintings and prints as well.

The pieces in the exhibition — which include seven new paintings — are often fantastical and dreamlike. They include depictions of ocean scenes, jungles, human and animal figures, skulls, masks, nymphs and insects, and are often monochromatic.

In an email, Hernandez wrote that his work was a reflection of his personal history, “full of myths, sorcerers and healers, of nahuales or spirits, open fires and herbs.” And although his paintings do not directly address climate change, Hernández said that his travels around the world had “made me realize there is less and less of the planet I am trying to paint.”

Other noteworthy exhibitions include a retrospective of more than 30 years of work by brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre at the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum. Originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, the brothers now live in San Diego and Baja California, Mexico.

This exhibition, “Collidoscope: de la Torre Brothers Retro-Perspective,” includes more than 70 mixed-media works. The duo are known for their blown-glass sculptures, and the pieces in this exhibition have a kaleidoscopic, surreal quality — a collision of colors, images, themes and materials. Many of the works are also darkly humorous. “La Belle Epoch” is particularly spectacular: a flamboyant take on the Sun Stone, which is one of the most famous artifacts from the Aztecs.

The de la Torre version is a 10-foot-high Ferris wheel, its circumference punctuated by human hearts in rotation around the Aztec sun god, Huitzilopochtli, who holds a knife in one hand and a liquor bottle in the other. This is one of two inaugural exhibitions at the Cheech, one of the country’s first permanent spaces dedicated to Chicano art and culture.

“Arte Para La Gente: The Collected Works of Margaret Garcia” runs through June 11 at LA Plaza de Cultural y Artes in Los Angeles and includes more than 75 works by the local Chicana artist and teacher. Garcia is known for her portraits of people in the Chicano community, including shop owners, artists, food and fruit vendors and the homeless. “The people she paints, in the Black and brown communities, don’t normally find themselves represented in art,” said Karen Crews Hendon, senior curator at LA Plaza. “She has a very expressionist way of painting, with bright, bold colors.”

In early October, the Chicano Park Museum and Cultural Center opened in Logan Heights, San Diego’s oldest Mexican-American neighborhood. It is dedicated to celebrating and preserving the history of the neighborhood and Chicano Park, which exists because of the activism of local residents in 1970.

Two years after the land beneath the Coronado Bay Bridge was officially christened Chicano Park, local artists began painting colorful murals on the bridge pylons. Today, there are more than 80.

The museum’s first exhibition, “PILLARS: Stories of Resilience and Self-Determination,” includes 12 6-foot-high indoor pillars, each of which has been used as a canvas by groups affiliated with the community to paint their individual stories.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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