Although street art abounds in this gritty,
its crown jewel is a mile-long,
art-blanketed wall next to the train tracks.
In case you hadn’t heard, art imitates life, which is no less true for being a tired old cliche. Oaxaca City’s street art, for instance, so troublingly resembles reality that authorities regularly paint over political murals as part of “civic beautification.” Thus, a visitor to the colonial southern capital who knows something of her history of resistance and conflict might be surprised to see so much unblemished adobe. Not so in Guadalajara, Jalisco, where I live and work. Most of the art here seems to be of a purely aesthetic nature, and thus it is, perhaps, that the local government’s repressive hand is felt to a lesser degree.
It would be a mistake, however, to characterize Guadalajara as passively accommodating and apolitical. This central Mexican metropolis, the country’s second-largest after CDMX, sees its fair share of protests, be they in response to widespread corruption, an epidemic of disappearances, homo and trans-phobic bigotry and misogyny, or the mayor’s recent decision to replace horse-drawn coaches with electric carriages.
But neither is “The Pearl of the West” Oaxaca City, which was the subject of an article I wrote about a short while ago in this very online publication. There, protesters pull fewer punches. In addition to the tried-and-true demonstration complete with picket signs and banners, they routinely block roadways with burning tires and cars and lob molotov cocktails and rocks at armored police. Which is not to say it’s incumbent upon artists of any media to be political. Art has the power to incite anger and indignation, but it can also make you laugh – or weep – for no logical reason, or gasp in recognition of some emotional or philosophical truth.
He (Villalpando) reserves his choicest social satire and parody for the salon, an act of discretion that seems at odds with the image, perhaps outdated, of the defiantly anti-establishment graffiti artist.
Anything can be political in the right context, though. If, for instance, your government has decided all of a sudden to outlaw flowers, then the appearance of a single, painted daisy on the side of the post office will be taken, deliberate or not, as a provocation.
Politics aren’t far from the minds of the civic-minded founders of Casa Quinque, an art collective which doubles, ipso facto, as a kind of hands-off reform school and talent incubator, a shield from the streets for Guadalajara’s artistically inclined, “at-risk” youth. The future of the city’s art scene, be it gallery or street-based, could be said to be under Casa Quinque’s care, tended like a tiny, flickering flame.
Casa Quinque, whose sole benefactor is a mysterious Guadalajara-area woman who wishes – in the way that people with an obscene amount of money and the cherished social reputation that comes with it often do – to remain completely anonymous and out of the public eye, is found on a desolate stretch of road in the Capilla de Jesus neighborhood, 20-minute’s walk northwest of the centro historico. It’s housed in a sprawling, two-story, neo-moorish property where a constant buzz of creative ferment hangs in the air.
Jesus Trinidad “Feng” Villalpando is precisely the kind of artist whose nascent talent one imagines might have been nurtured by Casa Quinque; the style of this 30-something Tapatio, whether in the gallery or on the side of a building, owes an overt debt to the aesthetic of graffiti. In fact, the artist Villalpando most obviously emulates is Jean-Michel Basquiat – not only in the work itself but also in his “artist’s journey” from an outlaw street artist to a “legit” artiste reverse-ghettoized into the city’s top galleries. But unlike Basquiat, who seemed with a stiff middle finger to have gladly kissed his life as a graffiti artist goodbye after rocketing to fame and fortune in the gilded 1980s Manhattan art scene, Villalpando still maintains a presence out-of-doors. However, he sees his labors – and himself, by extension – in these two distinct spheres as being mutually exclusive, saying as much in a statement to the press prior to a showing in late 2017. “The first [artistic identity] is Feng, the decorative urban artist,” explained the artist. “The second is Jesus Villalpando, an expressionist commenting on contemporary society.”
The fact that Villalpando views his al fresco art as less content-driven and purely aesthetic than his gallery work would seem, then, to corroborate my original statement regarding the apolitical nature of Guadalajara’s street art. He reserves his choicest social satire and parody for the salon, an act of discretion that seems at odds with the image, perhaps outdated, of the defiantly anti-establishment graffiti artist. So if like the artist Yescka – who featured in my article about Oaxaca City street art – you consider it the solemn obligation, nay, the quasi-messianic mission, of the artist to “hold up a mirror to society,” the bulk of Guadalajara’s outdoor 2-D art won’t put much tingle in your scrotum. If, on the other hand, your view of art’s function is more flexible and less serious-minded, Guadalajara has a lot to delight your artistic taste buds. The city has no single district overwhelmingly famous for street art, but the stretch of avenida Hidalgo between Federalismo and Chapultepec does boast of a good deal of excellent, idiosyncratic works, including at least one piece by Villalpando (see photos).
To be honest, though, I’ve egregiously buried the lead: as far as I know after living here for 1.5 years, Guadalajara’s single greatest street art attraction decorates a mile-long wall on avenida Yañez/Washington. Created some years ago as part of a government initiative, this barbed-wire-topped barrier – which runs parallel to and conceals from passersby the train tracks which bear the infamous migrant freight train nicknamed the “Beast” – will keep a pedestrian occupied for hours as they walk between Federalismo in the east and avenida Mariano Otero in the west. Lamentably, a few small sections of this wall have been covered over with homely painted advertisements, a potent visual metaphor for the losing war that art perpetually wages against the mindless, philistinic apparatus of Capital.
Conveniently in line with this article’s original thesis concerning the somewhat apolitical bent of Guadalajara street art, the wall is mainly to be appreciated from the point of view of pure aesthetics. However, there are a few exceptions. Most prominent among these is a piece – likely a deliberate reference to the human drama of migrancy which occurs daily on the other side of the wall – depicting a shawled, gaunt campesina peering from the guard rail of a locomotive, skeletal hands gripping cold, black iron, her face a visage of fear and anxiety. A phrase written to her right reads “Ama y defiende la patria, no la destruyas!” (love and defend the nation, don’t destroy it).
There are many ways to “defend” one’s nation, I suppose, but in terms of bolstering the psychic well-being of its citizens, nothing comes close to the arts in their capacity to console, entertain and enlighten. In fact, the only nation I’m strongly inclined to defend is the borderless one of musicians, sculptors, poets, painters, writers and filmmakers who heroically attempt to make of life something more than a day-to-day dog fight in the dust for survival. Casa Quinque, for one, presents a model for how effective defense of the arts may be achieved, and artists like Feng and those responsible for the mile-long railroad wall serve to remind those on the front lines why they bother in the first place.
words & photos by Matt Fink