February 4, 2017

Art and Politics in San Miguel

The San Antonio Art Walk takes place on the last weekend of this month (February). San Antonio is the neighborhood in San Miguel with the largest population of working artists. There are now 65 artists who are taking part in this annual event. Sixty-five! How many visitors can be expected per studio? Not that many. My guess is that some studios will get a lot and others not many at all. That's usually how it goes. 

These artists have formed some kind of association, with dues and by-laws and the delegation of tasks such as sending out press releases and coordinating of their preview party which this year is being held at a hotel (that's a lot of wine and a lot of pre-event kissing up and schmoozing with potential buyers -- my idea of hell on earth). Sounds like there's a lot of money and work involved for a two-day event with only a remote chance for sales. Personally, I prefer my independence and loathe being part of a club that will put demands on my time and involve a lot of politics. I hate politics. You can't have an organized group of 65 people without rules and fees and politics.

But here's the worst part -- these artists have nothing in common except for the fact that they all live in the same neighborhood. They are not like the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists, the Symbolists, the Surrealists, the Pre-Raphaelites, or, for that matter, the artists of the Italian Renaissance, because they are not united by a common set of principles, a common vision, or a raison d'etre of any kind. All they have in common is the fact that they live in the same neighborhood and want to sell art. Big f---ing deal!

If artists are going to form associations, they should be based on supportive friendships and common beliefs, and they should be free of any business encumbrances. Money will poison the good fellowship of a group of creative artists. When money is involved in an enterprise of any kind, people become more selfish and the dynamics of power come into play. In this respect, artists are no different from other people.  

January 9, 2017

Death of an Artist

I read yesterday of the death of one of San Miguel’s more serious artists, a Mexican who was well regarded and well loved, from what I’ve heard. Even though I’ve never met him, I was deeply saddened by this news, especially because there are precious few truly serious artists left in San Miguel these days. But also because his death was sudden and no doubt he was working on a project that will remain forever unfinished. All passionately creative artists have more ideas than they can possibly put onto canvas, and we must all one day have our creative energy abruptly terminated by death. One day our creative output will be cut off and we will have painted our last picture and have no time left to say all we had wanted to say. It is not a pleasant thought -- it is in fact a very grim thought, but it should move us to produce all that we can in whatever time we have left.  

December 8, 2016

Beauty and the Soul

Great beauty produces a rapture in the soul, and in the soul of an artist this rapture is more intense than it is in the soul of the average individual. When the artist produces a work of art which he considers to be beautiful it is because he is experiencing the rapture of the soul which compels him to express these emotions in his art. I’m sure Van Gogh felt this rapture when he looked upon a starry night. Gauguin must have felt it in Tahiti when he saw the harmony of man and nature. I feel this heightened rapture of the soul when I look at a young girl who is innocently unselfconscious of her loveliness.

Proverbial wisdom tells us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there is an undeniable universal beauty in the world masterpieces of art, music, theater, and dance. We can define a masterpiece as that which has the universal power and beauty to move us more profoundly than an “ordinary” work of art. Great beauty stirs the soul to unknown depths of rapture while at the same time raising it to new heights of enlightenment. In short, great beauty is an enigma that moves the soul in ways we cannot understand.

October 30, 2016

The Day of the Dead in San Miguel

Art works in honor of Dia de Los Muertos should emphasize the spiritual over the commercial. Much of the art work I’m seeing around town is much more commercial than it should be. It is dead art. Caterinas, painted skulls, and skeletons abound. Is this respectful to the sacred tradition of the holiday? Families get together to make flowers and use them to adorn altars, they gather at home or at el cementerio to remember their departed loved ones, they DO NOT dance around with someone dressed up as a Catrina, and to multiply these Catrina figures (a skeleton dolled up as a tawdry female, for those who don’t know) does a terrible disservice to the spiritual beliefs of the occasion. You might even go as far as to call it sacrilegious. As art in honor of the day, it is all rather tasteless.

Other subjects related to the holiday are more imaginative and meaningful. Take, for example, my painting “Making Flowers for the Day of the Dead” (see below). I painted this while I was still living in Zacatecas, a city, I am happy to say, that has eschewed or at least avoided the commercialism of San Miguel in this regard. The image is of three women, an old woman and her granddaughters, making flowers to be used on an altar. The old woman looks directly at the viewer because she is prepared for and willing to face Death, who is not in the picture but should be understood to be standing before the group. The two younger women look askance, over their shoulders because they sense the presence of Death but are not ready or willing to face him – it is not their time.

                                                “Making Flowers for the Day of the Dead”

September 28, 2016

The Starving Artist's Restaurant Guide

Let me begin by saying this is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to the economical places to eat in San Miguel, but rather a selective list based on my own personal preferences. Artists in San Miguel who are on a limited budget due to retirement or simply because they are starting out in their careers and don’t have much income are always on the look-out for restaurants that offer good value for the peso.

I grew up in a family that prided itself on good home cooking. My grandparents were immigrants from Southern Italy who had done well for themselves in the US and could afford to eat out but preferred to their own cooking to the cuisine offered by most Italian-American restaurants in their home town of Hartford, Connecticut. They ate well at home during the Great Depression, and passed their expertise on to their six children. My parents continued the traditions. So I am very picky when it comes to eating out and refuse to pay more than I need to for a good meal. I don’t need to sit at a table with a white tablecloth, be served by waiters in white shirts and black bow ties, or need to have a fancy atmosphere with Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” playing over the sound system. Just give me good food for a fair price and I’m happy!

As a struggling writer in Montreal in the 1970s, I ate at the many restaurants in the Mile End and St. Denis area that offered wholesome ethnic foods from Eastern Europe as well as the standard French Canadian grub such as bean soup, meat pies, and poutine. I stayed away from anything that resembled the haute cuisine of France for financial as well as dietary reasons.

Okay, so what does San Miguel have to offer in the way of cheap restaurants with good food? Here’s my list:

MEXICAN ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT BUFFETS. These are run by families. The food is home-cooked in the traditional style of real Mexican food. You will usually find chicken or vegetable soup, mole, chicken tinga, pork dishes, eggs, beans and rice, nopales, a fried dish with potatoes, a green salad with many raw veggies, tortillas and a rich pudding for dessert. All you can eat for 65 to 80 pesos per person.

POLLO FELIZ (HAPPY CHICKEN). A national chain that is Mexico’s answer to Colonel Sanders, and much healthier! One-half a barbecued chicken with tortillas for 46 pesos.

LA COMER. A large commercial supermarket with an excellent deli that serves chicken, fish, chile rellenos, various other hot meals as well as many vegetables and rice. Tables for dining are at the front of the store.

EL ITACATE MEXICAN GRILL. Located in SMA’s mall, La Luciernaga, this restaurant has pozole, burgers, flautas, quesadilla, and other traditional foods. Nice atmosphere, friendly staff. Average price: 75 pesos.

CAFÉ MONET. Located on the fringe of Centro, this place has good soups, omelets, sandwiches, meats, and daily specials. Wonderful atmosphere with Victorian-style furniture, many original paintings, and a baby grand piano. Friendly staff. They haven’t raised their modest prices (70 pesos on average) in 8 years.

MANY SMALL RESTAURANTS AND CAFES RUN BY FAMILIES. These eateries are located all over the city and they offer basic home-style fare in a no-frills atmosphere. Mexican equivalent of the American neighborhood coffee shop.  

September 24, 2016

Back Under the Radar

I am writing this with a pen dipped in acid. I am writing from a hotel in Queretaro, a large city of some sophistication about an hour from San Miguel. I am in Queretaro because I need a break from the glutted San Miguel art scene. Queretaro has plenty of authentic Mexican culture and relatively few gringos. There are too many tourists coming to San Miguel who have no interest in art. The city is overflowing with them. They are arriving by the busload, and they are coming because they read the hype published in high-end travel magazines as well as prestigious publications like Forbes, the New York Times and the LA Times. Starry-eyed travel writers are barking “San Miguel is a gem, an oasis of art, a hipster heaven . . .” blah, blah, blah, like a herd of bull seals. And so we serious artists who are full-time residents are the ones who are suffering the most because our voices are being overpowered by the tourist babble. Enough already. Basta! Let San Miguel have some peace for a change! Let it slide back under the radar, if that’s possible.

September 19, 2016

Las Damas de Guadalupe

Guadalupe is a family-oriented neighborhood in the north of San Miguel. Many SMA artists live and work there. It is also the location of the best art supply store in the city, El Pato (The Duck), named for the owner's favorite Disney cartoon character. It is adjacent to the Aurora Colonia (neighborhood) which boasts the prestigious Fabrica Aurora gallery center, and has many outdoor murals. This is a painting I did a few years ago representing the women who walk there with their children on their way to and from school or the market.

September 12, 2016

Leonora Carrington Sculptures in San Miguel

Several large Leonora Carrington sculptures in bronze have recently been installed along the new walkway/bikepath across from Los Pinos between the Mission Hotel and the entrance to the Atascadero neighborhood. Very interesting and worth a bus ride. Originally from England, Carrington lived a colorful life and died in Mexico City in 2011. She was a surrealist and highly prolific as both a painter and sculptor. More info about her at http://www.leocarrington.com/home-pagina-principal-1.html
For those of you who don't live in San Miguel, the backdrop setting for the sculptures is quite striking. Behind them is a scenic view of open fields with a vista of rolling countryside and hazy mountains in the far distance.

NB: The Carrington sculptures have been removed. There are now new bronze sculptures by Mexican artist Jose Luis Cuevas in the same location.

February 26, 2016

A Lot of Pretentious B-S

The San Miguel art scene is becoming increasingly and incredibly pretentious. People tell me to ignore it. I try, but it's getting harder and harder for me to do that. As the competition grows, so does the newspaper and online advertising and general promotion of events. Posters and handouts are popping up everywhere, and the B-S is flying thick and fast.

This week (February 26-March 4, 2016) we have a gallery opening with a full-page ad in the local newspaper announcing that a guy who is “direct from Miami, Florida” (oooh – so what?) is going to do a live painting of Frida Kahlo (is he going to bring her back from the dead? – that would be worth watching). His style is super glitzy, and we don’t need that kind of art in SMA, so send him back to Miami on the next flight, please.

Then there’s a new play, also announced with a full-page ad that tells us it’s “hilarious and a must-see” (a must-see, what a tiresome clichĂ©). Oh, really? And does anyone else think it’s a bit self serving for the producers or director or whoever wrote the copy for the ad to call it hilarious? Not very objective, is it? Perchance it was the playwright’s mother who called it that?

And to top it off we have a realtor who promotes himself as the guy who will be happy to sell you your “dream home” running an ad using Stephen Spielberg’s photo and his logo with the line “Dream Works”. What does his real estate agency have to do with Hollywood, I wonder? Answer: Nada damn thing. He’s trying to steal some Hollywood glamour, and isn’t it illegal to use a celebrity’s image to sell something without their permission? Watch out there, Mr. Real Estate Agent, you may find yourself in court, or, worse yet, you may not be invited to the Oscars! Heaven forbid! 

February 9, 2016

San Miguel's Annual Carnival and Tourist Invasion

Every February San Miguel becomes a super hive of activity, and this year seems to have even more events than usual. I am tempted to call it San Miguel’s Carnival of Creativity. All the accelerated activity among the artists in our community is driven by the Tourist Invasion that happens every February, spearheaded by the annual Writers Conference. With all the openings, exhibits, studio walks, in addition to the theater and music performances, writing workshops, talks, tours and lectures that are crammed into five days, we are currently on arts events overload. It makes me wonder – just how many arts events is the average tourist willing and able to take in during a single week?

With all the artists vying for attention in San Miguel, the city has turned into a rat race. But in February it becomes a Super Marathon Rat Race, or, if you like, a Rat Race on Steroids.