CHICAGO — Alberto Aguilar is at the National Museum of Mexican Art. Not literally, not right away, but he’s been here recently and he’s been busy. It’s important because Aguilar makes art out of everything around him, wherever he is. When his four children were younger, this often meant the bulk of domestic life, and he was constantly arranging temporary sculptures in his and other people’s homes from clothes trees, duct tape, chairs and hoops. During a visit to Los Angeles, he fashioned lines in the street from fallen pink flowers; in Havana, he used dried corn cobs to fight eating chickens. At the Art Institute of Chicago, he created geometric murals from leftover exhibit murals. Between here and there, this and that, he sketched hundreds of Drawings in passingclever doodles and puns mostly done in pen on mini yellow pads of paper, where the printed lines could become the pattern for a tapestry or the scaffolding for a slanted list of 50 ingredients to use in the sauce mole.
Doing all of this, and especially doing it during the two decades that Aguilar was a practicing artist, requires a very particular set of skills and attitudes. These include being a masterful arranger, developer of usable systems and a seer of potential, as well as being tirelessly playful and improvisatory, brave with color and never too serious. Much is possible when someone thinks and acts this way, and much of that possibility is on display in Yo Soy Museo: new works by Alberto Aguilar at NMMA, until February 2023.
Yo Soy Museum seems at first sight to belong to the category of exhibitions of collections organized by artists. It features a selection of masks from the museum’s collections, including a dizzying one with sparse plant fiber hair, bony protrusions, and a black and white concentric pattern that would make an Op Art painter blush. There are ceramic animals, pottery and glassware, art books, miniature sculptures, abstract wood reliefs, photographs, wall hangings, posters, and more. The presentation is tidy and well-balanced, with glass display cases, plenty of risers and pedestals, long wall tags, and a pair of benches for viewers to sit on. So far, so good. Indeed, I have no doubt that Aguilar could organize a terrific exhibition of collections, except that Yo Soy Museum is no such thing. If so, only the masks would have made the difference. And they wouldn’t each hang in the center of an old museum exhibit poster. The resulting overlays range from heretical defiance – this op art mask, by an indigenous Sonoran tribe called Comáac, partially obscures a 17th-century painting of saints and cherubim from the show Images of faith – with a suave aesthetic – for example, a carved wooden dog mask, whose neutral tones and markings match those of the abstraction used on a poster for a contemporary Mexican art exhibition.
Adjacent is a wall covered with a grid of 27 photographic self-portraits. Much like the poster-mask juxtapositions, in each of these images, Aguilar’s face is concealed by a situational prop: a black cat, an overturned basket, a bouquet of flowers, an outdoor sign, an empty bag of rice, vertical blinds, a wall at the beach with a hole the size of a head. There’s no limit to what a disguise can become, it seems – even a slice of white bread can work. A lot of it is hilarious, but not all of it – there’s something a little sad about a man with only a red and black basketball for his face, and people with bags over their heads remember hostage and torture situations. This variety of registers, from the comic to the tragic, corresponds to what I consider to be the general principle of Yo Soy Museumbut also Aguilar’s practice more generally: just about anything can become something else, given the right approach to materials, situations and self.
The rest of Yo Soy Museum is interested in the kind of documents that a fiery archivist might unearth in the recesses of an institution which, while housing an important permanent collection of Mexican art on both sides of the border, has remained deeply attached to the local community which founded it in 1987. What is an artifact, what is a work of art, what is an accessory, what is decoration, what is is disposable – these are slippery questions at NMMA, and ones that Aguilar tackled with great enthusiasm and deliciously unpredictable results, including floating shelves built from overstock Gunther Catalogs Gerzso and a pair of energetic murals whose colors and shapes derive from the remains Dia de Muertos paint and accessories. The museum is popular for its annual Day of the Dead exhibition, which features offered new commissions every year from contemporary artists. Additionally, you can get sugar skulls decorated with the names of deceased loved ones.
“Present Memory (A Revision),” an altar-like wall-sized assemblage, features elements of particular significance to the history of NMMA: its original sunfaded panel, a framed photograph by Cesar Chavez and Carlos Cortéz with museum staff and board members, vinyl records from the Cortéz archives, mosaic commemorating 10 years of the museum, Cortez’s personal record player, 30 years of the left-leaning Mexican periodical Processa photo of Mayor Harold Washington attending the museum’s inaugural exhibit.
But nothing is presented as it has ever been or ever will be, a mutability particularly appropriate when it comes to memories. The recordings are obscured by streamers of white papel picado; turntable and magazine sets serve as bases for luchador toy rings filled with figures from the gift shop; an upside-down audio dome filled with plastic oranges and bananas used in Dia de Muertos showing off, becoming an enormous suspended fruit basket; painted wooden photo stands hang on the wall like a series of abstract reliefs. Cleverly arranged glassware from the museum’s dining room, broken ceramic jaguars from the gift shop, even a coiled air compression hose are also present; if they have no obvious historical importance for the institution, they are nevertheless part of its history. Aguilar makes sure they look like they belong.
One of the few articles of Yo Soy Museum which obviously hasn’t been subjected to Aguilar’s exuberant interpretation is a set of 13 balls made of paint and duct tape. These are the work of Luis Martín Gamez, or rather, they are the remains of his work: Gamez is associated with the NMMA installations and was the painter of the internal gallery for years. The balls are presented with reverence in a display case and classified by size, the exception which proves the rule: everything can also, always, be a work of art. It’s not that far to go from there in the title of this exhibition. Yo Soy Museumin other words, means anyone can be a museum.
Yo Soy Museo: New Works by Alberto Aguilar continues at the National Museum of Mexican Art (1852 W. 19th Street, Chicago, Illinois) through February 12, 2023.