"'Prometheus' mural ignites Mexican artists in PST: LA/LA show at Pomona College," by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
When a professor invited Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco to Pomona College in 1930 to produce an artwork for the dining hall, campus officials didn’t know what they would get. And they weren’t thrilled with the result, either: Not something decorative, but the figure of a naked man stealing fire from the gods as witnesses recoil. There’s some evidence Orozco was shorted on his $2,500 fee.
Administrators would never have expected that nearly nine decades later, “Prometheus” would still adorn the dining hall. Nor could they have envisioned the importance the mural would have in 2017.
“Prometheus” is the centerpiece of an exhibit in “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA,” which explores the connections between Los Angeles and Latin America. Seventy-six arts institutions around Southern California are taking part, including 11 from Pomona to Palm Springs. It’s an initiative of the Getty Foundation, which for research, planning, exhibition and publication gave the college $275,000.
Orozco, who died in 1949, might have liked a piece of that.
The attention begins with “Prometheus,” which is still looming over students at lunchtime. (I expect to write about the mural in the near future.) But most of the excitement is reserved for a new exhibit, for which Pomona commissioned four artists from Mexico to respond to Orozco’s mural.
When Getty officials brought up Latin America in their initial call for proposals, “I immediately thought, ‘Prometheus’! How can we incorporate that?” recalled Rebecca McGrew, the museum’s senior curator.
McGrew, who wrote her master’s thesis on Mexican mural art, wanted a show that would bring a modern slant to the mural. Having female artists react to the overtly masculine image got a good reception from Getty officials. I can’t blame them: It’s a delightful idea.
The result is “Prometheus 2017: Four Artists from Mexico Revisit Orozco.” It fills all three rooms and a long hallway at the museum, 330 N. College Ave. in Claremont, through Dec. 16. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. daily except Monday and admission is free. The college, by the way, funded the artists and the programming from its own budget.
Isa Carrillo focused on the fireworks accident that cost Orozco his left hand at age 21 and persuaded him to turn from architecture to art. Adela Goldbard and students created a full-sized, wood-and-papier-mache replica of a microbus connected to political unrest in Mexico that will be ritually set aflame.
“We really wanted to reframe the mural in contemporary terms,” explained Mary Coffey, a Dartmouth art history professor and Orozco scholar who helped organize the show.
Carrillo and Ponce de Leon were both at the museum for opening events earlier this month to talk about their work.
Carrillo reconstructed the contours of Orozco’s missing hand and commissioned a palm reading — a bit late to influence his decision to play with fire, alas — while also working up his astrological chart and analyzing his handwriting, all to get insights into his personality. “He did suffer a lot in many ways,” she said, noting the early loss of his father, which made him the primary support for his mother and siblings.
Her exhibit, “Left Hand,” includes drawings of his hand, whimsical astronomical art in which constellations form a hand shape, test tubes of the elements of gunpowder, and tiny engravings done with the help of Orozco’s grandson.
After her gallery talk she did palm readings for a long line of eager students. In an interview two days later, the artist, who is from Guadalajara, told me that in palmistry, “the left hand is what capacities you had when you were born; the right hand is what people see about you.”
Later I kicked myself for forgetting to ask for a palm reading.
Ponce de Leon’s exhibit was developed from months of conversations with and among students about their lives and about “Prometheus.” It was a time of unrest on the campus and concerns about “navigating the hierarchy,” then-student Davis Menard told me. Ponce de Leon’s resultant mural is a series of images of twinned figures attempting to communicate.
Rather than the bombast of Orozco, whose mural nearly bursts from its confined space, hers merely dots the four walls, an image here, an image there, the figures done in black outline with occasional pastels.
“The conversations had in common a focus on how can we relate in a way that we don’t categorize the other. There’s a need to be free of categories — racial divisions, political divisions,” Ponce de Leon told me.
The Mexico City resident was here in July to paint the mural from projections of her sketches, improvising along the way. Because it’s painted on the museum’s walls, when the show is over, the mural will be painted over. The soft-spoken artist said that’s her preference with most of her work, that it disappears.
“It’s the same pleasure,” Ponce de Leon said, “as when you’re a child and you make a sand castle.”
Visits by the other two artists are scheduled: a film screening and performance Oct. 19 by Rincon-Gallardo and the pyrotechnic performance Nov. 18 by Goldbard, both from 7 to 9 p.m.
Although all events are free, if you want a souvenir, a $45 hardcover was published with the Getty’s assistance.
It’s got lots of great images of “Prometheus” and of the four new exhibits, plus a chronology (its pages are, ironically, out of order in my copy). I found the essays useful, if laden with art-world blather like “cultural reification,” “littoral,” “relational aesthetics” and, a personal favorite, “conceptually multivalent language.”
Orozco, and the administrators who stiffed him, would no doubt marvel.