Monocle, April 2020
Los Famosos Equipales is a spit-and-sawdust cantina cluttered with football paraphernalia. For decades it has been serving tequila and tacos dorados to loyal patrons in Mexico’s second city, Guadalajara. Tonight, however, it has been commandeered by the art crowd. Over by the DJ booth, Inés López-Quesada, co-owner of Spanish gallery Travesía Cuatro – which has an outpost in the city – is feeling the music. And is that artist Alejandro Almanza Pereda getting involved in a dance circle? Out on the street, fellow artist Gabriel Rico is taking a breather from the packed room (he’s “muy hot” right now, according to more than one source). And what’s with the man dressed in a red devil onesie, complete with horns, shaking his thing?
Every year, as January segues into February, Guadalajara celebrates Premaco,a long weekend of contemporary art shows, studio visits and what everyone knows is the backbone of any successful art event: parties. Loosely pegged to the Zonamaco art fair, which takes place in Mexico City a few days later, it was started seven years ago by Travesía Cuatro to show international gallerists and collectors what makes Guadalajara tick. Away from the dancing, López-Quesada admits that only about “15 or 20 people showed up” to the first edition. “But now it’s out of control,” she adds. She has a point: alongside the gallery’s own programming, artist shows have joined the act, making 2020 the biggest edition to date. Its success is a clear barometer of how the city’s creative scene is in the ascendant.
Any emergent art scene needs a number of factors working in its favour to succeed – the most important being talent. Guadalajara’s foundations are built around a “golden generation” of artists who have all achieved international success, something Travesía Cuatro’s co-owner Silvia Ortiz says “doesn’t happen many times in history”. The city’s art scene is dominated by the 1970s-born triumvirate of Jose Dávila, Jorge Méndez Blake and Gonzalo Lebrija, who all studied in their home city and never left. From the sun-dappled patio of his studio, Lebrija – whose work spans different media, from painting to photography – explains that there’s something unique about the capital of Jalisco state. This provincial town can’t claim to be as cosmopolitan as Mexico City but the fact that Guadalajara is a traditional, conservative and religious place creates a friction that, he says, provides the scene with its fertility. “My family is not intellectual or art-based,” he says. “For me becoming an artist was more an act of rebellion – and my case is similar to a lot of others.”
Guadalajara might have some history as a creative centre – famed 1930s muralist José Clemente Orozco lived in the city, as did architect Luis Barragán – but until recently you couldn’t study fine art here. Many of the breakthrough generation of artists (including Méndez Blake and Dávila) ended up reading architecture, which seemed like a more viable career path at the time. That influence is still clearly visible in their sculptural installations, even if Méndez Blake’s more recent work combines graphic design, literature and video. And the fact that these artists stuck with Guadalajara during their formative years has fed the imagination and ambitions of the next generation.
Today there are plenty of signs of budding talent: over at Espacio Cabeza, a home (bathroom included) has been turned into an art space for a Premaco show called Otro trabajo, otro trabaja, which is dedicated entirely to artists who work for other people’s studios and workshops. Further north in the Seattle neighbourhood, up-and-coming artists Alberto López Corcuera and Renata Petersen are putting on a show at Guadalajara90210 gallery. The new location, which opened last year, clearly wins the prize for most original space in town. Once a pig farm, half of the exhibition area is open air, with sections divided by the original pen walls. Here the artists’ work examines the interplay between the holy and the profane: López Corcuera’s pieces in stone and neon explore how materials can feel sacred, while Petersen’s ceramic works look at the tension between domesticity and sex. Both artists also have works at a former Kodak factory that has been turned into a vast temporary exhibition space featuring 29 artists. It’s the first time anything of this scope and ambition has been put together in Guadalajara.
Having the right people invested in actively building up the creative scene is also fundamental to the city’s rise in international art ranks. The arrival of Madrid-founded Travesía Cuatro in 2012 certainly helped put the city on the map (more contemporary galleries have popped up since then). But a city also needs collectors if its art market is to thrive – and that is increasingly fed by the Mexicans, Americans, Spaniards and Japanese arriving for Premaco. Gamaliel Herrera – a radiologist, self-taught artist and collector who splits his time between Boston and Miami – is in town for the first time. He admits to being “quite surprised” by the intimacy of the scene – the sort of positive feedback that organisers hope to spread far and wide. “It has elevated my interest to the point where I’m considering acquiring a piece,” he says.
Guadalajara has clearly benefited from an international interest in Mexican art but it’s not just outsiders looking in. In the early days, three collectors dominated the city’s market; nowadays that pool has widened. Artist Jorge Méndez Blake says that he sells the majority of his art to emerging Mexican collectors in dollars, even if overseas prices still tend to be higher. Despite the shifting dynamics, one person continues to connect all the art-related dots in town: José Noé Suro, Guadalajara’s networker-in-chief, is one of those original three collectors. He’s better than any public relations officer at spreading the word about the city – it was Suro who suggested Travesía Cuatro open in Guadalajara and until recently he was a partner at the gallery. “People are always coming here,” he says. “I think we’re more connected to the world than Mexico City.”
Suro is the owner of Cerámica Suro, a ceramics factory founded by his father in the 1950s. His late artist brother had been good friends with the city’s golden generation and Suro ended up helping artists produce pieces at the factory (he jokes that his father didn’t get what he was doing and Suro lost count of the number of times he was fired on a Friday and invited back to work on Monday). “My logic isn’t commercial,” he says as we tour the factory, which is also the site of a large lunch gathering during every Premaco. Estimating his private collection at about 1,200 pieces, he often helps artists produce for free – something that has proven a boon for young, cash-strapped types – in return for being allowed to keep a few works for himself. The business, of course, also needs to make money but there’s so much being made at the factory that a low turnover doesn’t seem like a risk. Tiles are being printed for a new David Adjaye project in New York, plates are being made for Mexican chef Enrique Olvera’s new restaurant in Los Angeles and production is swinging into gear for a Mexican Soho House. But it’s also hard to find an artist in Guadalajara that hasn’t worked with Suro over the years.
Easy access to skilled artisans and producers, from Suro’s ceramics to textiles at tapestry workshop Taller Mexicano de Gobelinos, is not only fuelling the activities of Guadalajara’s artists but is attracting people from abroad too. New York-based French artist Guillaume Leblon met Suro at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2016 and was immediately sold. Leblon, whose most recent work focuses on found neon, now spends 10 days every six weeks in his Guadalajara studio and says that the generosity of artisans here is nothing like what he had found in Paris or New York. “That’s worth five hours on the plane for me,” he says.
This sense of a warm artistic community is at the heart of why Guadalajara works as an art city. The scene is small enough to be collaborative and, like other on-the-up Mexican art towns such as Mérida and Oaxaca, Guadalajara feels like both an escape and a refuge – creatives can focus on art over commerce here. Most of the artists wouldn’t be able to afford the same expansive studio spaces in either Mexico City or abroad (the stunning Taller Los Guayabos, a multi-artist studio in a 1939 mansion, is a case in point).
Gallerist Rigo Campuzano moved to Guadalajara from Mexico City three years ago to open the internationally focused Gamma gallery. He says that his space wouldn’t have comparable dimensions in the capital – but it’s about more than just that. He points to another contemporary gallery, Curro, that just inaugurated a new building down the road and says the diversity of galleries on offer over just a couple of kilometres might well make Guadalajara unrivalled. “That’s something that Mexico City and Monterrey don’t have.”