Oaxaca artist's roots run deep

Caroline Mackinnon | The Herald Mexico | 2007

Oaxaca painter Demián Flores has lived in several different Mexicos, from the provincial Zapotec community of his birth to the concrete jungle of Mexico City.

Born in 1971 in Juchitán, a small town on the southern Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Flores spent his childhood immersed in Zapotec customs. Historically, Juchitán was a crossroads of trade and commerce in this part of the country, owing in part to its blend of diverse cultures. It is known for having a matriarchal society that has also long integrated gays and transgender people, known as muxes, into its traditions.

When Flores moved to Mexico City at the age of 13, he said, like many immigrants, his home life continued to reflect his origins, while he found it exciting to adapt to this new urban environment.

Flores said his upbringing "gave me the opportunity to know different worlds, different environments and realities," and this jumbled background clearly shines in his artwork. His work at once combines the urban landscape and all the propaganda that encumbers it, with a simpler way of life - a look back to his roots.

An exhibition of Flores´ recent work, called simply "Paintings," is currently on display at the Hilario Galguera Gallery in Mexico City´s San Rafael neighborhood. Thirteen canvases, many several meters in size, are layered with brightly colored icons, some in the style of rotulos (hand-painted advertisements) as well as political figures and cultural legends.

Olga Dávila, who worked with Flores on exhibitions at the Centro Cultural Tijuana and the Fischer Gallery in Los Angeles last year, curated the show. Dávila said of Flores, "He´s very clever, he has a very open world view, as well, he is very conscious about Mexican identity and political problems here."

Several of his pieces address last year´s conflict in Oaxaca, including one massive painting entitled "Welcome to Oaxaca." Flores said he collaborated with five different graffiti artists who used stencils and spray paint to create a background for him to work on. The painting is like a transplanted stretch of city wall in the gallery. Stencils of the face of controversial Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz peer from underneath slashes of color, and slogans scribbled in luminous spray paint add to the visual mayhem.

Flores said that he has had the chance to explore "an unusual sense of homeland or patriotism" in some of his pieces, including one titled "Juan Escutia" which depicts one of the Niños Héroes (boy heroes) who apparently jumps to his death from Chapultepec Castle during the 1847 Battle of Chapultepec of the Mexican-American War. In this painting, the martyr is wrapping himself in a flag before his leap (to ensure - as the story goes - that the flag wouldn´t get into the hands of the enemy) while larger-than-life pixilated faces blown up from newsprint loom smile oddly in the background.

Although many of the details in Flores´ paintings contain references that are specifically Mexican, it is far from alienating to someone from another part of the planet. Instead, his work draws you into its world, and although certain pop cultural icons or historical elements might be lost on some, the austere composition and what gallery director Galguera describes as "turning shadow into light" are enough for someone from any background to appreciate this painter´s burgeoning talent.

Galguera, who opened the space last spring with an exhibition of works by British superstar artist Damien Hirst, described showing a painter like Flores as a risk, though of course a calculated one. Although Flores has been involved in several international exhibitions, he certainly doesn´t have the same clout as someone like Hirst, whose show sold out quickly, enabling the gallery to take some chances. "I think that I´m at a position with the gallery where I can explore different things," Galguera said.

Flores´ dreamy paintings may just as easily incorporate the pre-Hispanic plumed serpent god Quetzalcoatl as lively comic book characters. One piece boasts a cartoon-like rendition of a José Guadalupe Posada skeleton next to a silhouetted figure straining under a giant bust of Mexico´s beloved 19th-century Zapotec president Benito Juárez. Flores said that the paintings juxtapose different realities, many of the elements of which are based on "collective memory."

Flores studied visual arts at the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City, and has also participated in workshops and residencies in Europe and the United States. He just finished three pieces that will be in the upcoming Milan Triennial of contemporary art in April. Flores currently lives and works in the city of Oaxaca, where he has been an important player in founding La Curtiduría, an exposition space and cultural center.



The exhibit Demian Flores Paintings will be on at the Galería Hilario Galguera until March 14. The gallery is on Francisco Pimentel 3 in Mexico City's Col. San Rafael. Call to make an appointment. Tel. 5546-6703