Most New Yorkers aren’t fazed by much. But when Brian Thoreen told a group of locals that he and a crew of construction folks were hoisting and foisting with forklifts smack in the center of Rockefeller Center, they gasped. On Tuesday, May 10, the artist and design dealer stayed up until 4am hanging the clothes lines of Pia Camil’s new work “Saca Tus Trapos Al Sol (Air Out Your Dirty Laundry)” on the 193 flagpoles surrounding the Rink (you know, where Jeff Koons and Kaws oversized statutes often loom).
Camil’s site-specific intervention is a brazen public-facing commentary that strings together over 700 items of used clothing, collected by Camil from donations in Mexico City and still soaked in the humanness of their previous owners. It’s part of a show called Intervención/Intersección, the latest venture from MASA Galería, up through June 24. Co-founded in Mexico City in 2018 by Thoreen, Age Salajõe, and Héctor Esrawe, the roving design platform seeks unconventional ways to showcase and dialogue the urgencies of material culture. Past projects include shows in an Oaxacan medical clinic, a crumbling Mexico City manse, and an empty skyscraper in the city’s Roma district. Now, MASA has come to New York — in RockCenter, of all places — which may not sound particularly notable, except in this case, it really quite is.
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The first encounter of Intervención/Intersección is Camil’s unglossed installation. But down in the depths of the former post office of Rockefeller Center, there’s a group show curated by another Mexico-transplant and design whisperer, Su Wu, that brings together a specific selection of Mexican artists who bridge the contemporary and historical — reflecting on the expression of private intimacies, awkward realities, failed dreams, and frailties of the human condition.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Thoreen said that this show was actually about four years in the making, and it always hinged on finding the right spot. In his mind, that was RockCenter. How did Tishman Speyer, the corporate landlord of the Midtown landmark, agree to let a nomadic band of cool kids from Mexico take over a federal piece of property? Well, Thoreen shares: patience.
“I wanted the show to look like a flattened maquette of space,” he said. In 2019, when Thoreen (along with Esrawe and Salajõe) first saw the now-disused post office, with its low ceilings and buttercream monochrome environs, it fit Thoreen’s vision. But it was still a functional post office at the time, and the nation’s hardest-working government agency wasn’t going to stop delivering the mail because a group of design darlings said so. When the call came in about six months ago that the space was available, though, MASA pounced on the opportunity.
MASA and Wu gathered together a group of artists from all walks of life. Outsider artist Martín Ramírez, whose drawings from the 1950s and ’60s were made inside a mental institution, contain the sort of contemplation and cheekiness that might constitute a meme Instagram account today. Proceeding through the main space into a back room sits Freda Escobedo’s chain-link chair responding to Ana Mendieta’s 1974 film Creek — in which the Cuban American artist lies naked in water, filming herself becoming one with the natural element — but in a material often used to restrict spatial movement. Sculptures by Rubén Ortiz Torres, made of car hoods sourced from scrap yards in Tijuana that have been damaged by cartel violence and repaired with gold leaf in the Japanese method of kintsugi, join a performance-based woven textile work by Tania Candiani capturing the words she’s overheard people saying about her work, including misconceptions imposed upon her practice. Elsewhere in the show, there are Pedro Reyes chairs evoking symbols found in Aztec imagery; works by Jose Dávila, Alma Allen (Wu’s husband), and Thoreen himself; and, of course, an Isamu Noguchi playground maquette in the center of the floor to tie the concept all together.
According to Thoreen, the show was set up in a lightning-quick timeline, about six weeks in total, with Wu herself shaping the vision to center works “that really connect to the history of this place.”
“We really want to think about artists who’ve fallen out of the canon because they are women or their sexuality, or don’t have privilege or made functional work — and not grand civic murals,” Wu told Hyperallergic. “And all the ways in which history is unsettled and rewritten.”
Forget not that RockCenter was once slated to be the proud home of Diego Rivera’s 1934 fresco “Man at the Crossroads,” slated for the lobby of 30 Rock but destroyed before it was completed. Rivera’s inclusion of Vladimir Lenin proved to seal its fate. And while MASA’s show isn’t about the tensions between capitalism and communism, as Rivera’s mural was, Thoreen points to another interesting dichotomy that forms a coherent thread throughout the exhibition.
“Mexico is very inclusive, rather than exclusive,” he said. “It creates a community where everyone wants to collaborate and share. You can see that come out in what we’re capable of doing at MASA.”
And it’s precisely that exchange between Mexico and the United States that makes this show interesting — beyond the individual works. Is this not a signal that New York, the proverbial center of the art world, is importing Mexican artists for a salable exhibition centered around the idea of community and quiet histories that have been overlooked for being too raw, real, or authentic? This is not triumphant imperialistic work, exported as cultural supremacy, but rather a humming subversion of what public art can look like and a blurring of the lines between art and design.
Perhaps the most subversive aspect of the show overall is that it’s so rooted in mutual support. “It’s all in the family,” Thoreen said. “For the most part, we’re all friends and that’s how MASA started. The business idea came from us showing our and our friends’ work, and showing the work the way we want to see it.” If there’s one lesson we’ve learned recently, there really isn’t anything more powerful than the strength the community provides.