“Ay, caramba! El diablo no bueno!”
I’ve heard some variation on the above exclamation numerous times from Lourdes, our café manager at the Tyler Museum of Art, in response to any mention of Devil, a comically sinister papier-mâché figure perched in the display case of Mexican folk art in our lobby.
He’s not Satan, per se, but an abstract interpretation of a more generalized idea of evil common to rural Mexico. Regardless of whether the figure represents the fallen archangel himself or merely generic malevolence, Lourdes is sufficiently relieved to have a few months of respite from his glowering mug.
Our pal Devil has hit the bricks for now — because a much larger, more fearsome incarnation has taken up residence in the gallery as part of our latest exhibition “Celebration of Life and Death: Selections from the Boeckman Collection of Mexican Folk Art,” running through Jan. 19.
The title of this show is wonderfully self-explanatory, capturing the essence of both sides of the mortal coil through a stunning array of pieces accumulated by Laura and Dan Boeckman of Dallas over two decades of travels through Mexico — and generously donated to the museum. The collection is so immense, we conceivably could curate a Mexican folk art exhibition twice a year for the next decade without displaying the same object twice.
Some of the pieces this time around will be familiar — the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe painting rendered from seeds, the almost garishly colorful Tree of Life sculpture — yet most are making their gallery debut. Regardless of the media or the specific subject matter, each work is accessible (kids on our school tours love it), and the titles tend to be charmingly literal: Angel (playing horn), Basketball Players on Court, the triumphantly minimalistic Family on Skull, featuring … yep, a family on a skull.
As I awkwardly attempted to explain recently to a college newspaper reporter who’s shown an almost otherworldly propensity to catch me at my least articulate, the coolness in this folk art lies in its singular fusion of sobriety and whimsicality. Sure, we’re dealing with a copious amount of imagery involving dead people here, but in the interpretation of most of the artists represented in this collection, the majority seem to be coping with mortality quite nicely.
Nowhere is that theme more prominent than The Dandy, aka “Dead Dude on a Big-Honkin’ Bicycle.” Clad in tuxedo and tails, top hat perched askew his gargantuan melon, this bony cat is on the move and ready to party. And my favorite piece in the show — probably the entire collection — is Drug Bust, an unapologetically incorrect tableau depicting a squad of skeletal Federales spoiling the fun for a cadre of comparably moribund miscreants on the cusp of landing a big score. Even before I returned to the TMA nine months ago, the consensus among the staff was that the inclusion of Drug Bust in this exhibition was non-negotiable.
I acknowledge that folk art — particularly death-obsessed Mexican folk art — can be an acquired taste. So if “Celebration of Life and Death” doesn’t capture your imagination, you still have a few days to check out the popular “Winn Morton: Festivals, Pageants & Follies” before we close the exhibition Dec. 1.
Stewart offered me this semi-monthly guest column space with the tacit understanding I shamelessly would exploit it to plug the latest offerings of the institution that issues my paychecks. In the spirit of our arrangement, I’m happy to take the opportunity to note the TMA is open today. So, before you spend your post-tryptophan hangover shin-boning some hapless soul standing between you and the ideal mall parking space that might save you 90 seconds of walking, stop by the Museum. Unlike 99.8 percent of what you’ll find elsewhere this Black Friday, it’s free.
I’ll be happy to give you the dime tour if I’m around, but don’t ask me about the sugar skulls. I haven’t a clue as to what prevents them from melting.
Jon Perry is the public relations coordinator for the Tyler Museum of Art.