Academy Summer Residencies 2016: Mexico City

Our first dispatch from Mexico City comes from Maya Mason, MFA 2017

As Fast as the Eye Can See: My Summer in Mexico City

My primary fixation as a painter has always been the expressive power of the human body.

 Thrust into a new life in Mexico City for the past six weeks, I have been privileged to understand and experience the human body anew, as it is approached by this vibrant culture. Estimates of Mexico City’s population range from twenty-two to twenty-six million—so many people that even this sprawling megalopolis at many times feels crammed to sardine-tin proportions. On a typical afternoon, pedestrians and those traveling by car are rendered nearly immobile by the sheer volume of human activity that swells up the streets into a rush hour that lasts for perhaps closer to ten hours. Bodies spill from the sidewalk onto the road—forming a human ocean.

Curious people gawk at this tall, pale foreigner who apologetically slips into Italian when her nascent Spanish betrays her; I am acutely aware of my failure to disguise myself into a person who is native to this space, despite my tents of flowery and colorful clothing and the confident, unyielding stride I have worked so hard to establish.

The fascination is mutual. Though I have spent many subway rides back home pondering the obfuscation of public and private space in my native New York, the populace of Mexico City takes this blurring of boundaries to a new extreme. People with heartbreaking physical problems—gangrenous limbs, hydrocephalus, and debilitating elephantiasis, to name a few—spend entire days sitting on the cement displaying these misfortunes in hopes of some financial empathy. Others manage to subsist on the wages earned from selling tortillas an inch in diameter on portable griddles alone. Every time I go to the Zocalo, I look forward to admiring an amazingly nimble textile artist who works tenaciously on beautiful embroidery despite having only hooks for hands that seem to have been lost in a fire; her dexterity is something that most people with ten fingers would envy, as I certainly do.

There is an openness and equality to bodies of all kinds here, in whatever state of aging, health, or economic status their owners may be. This is indicative of the overall openness and vitality that characterizes much of the population’s approach to navigating this urban life, as evidenced by the candor of businesses that sell mannequins in the buff along the highway and, more bafflingly, the curiosity of whoever dug up one of the many coffins I encountered emptied in Dolores Cemetery. 

Sensory overload is another phenomenon to which I imagine most of the veteran denizens have grown immune, from the color-and-music-and-scent-ridden canals of Xochimilco to the walls of Ciudadela marketplace.

The optical abundance here has forced me to live “as fast as the eye can see,” a little motto I recite to myself in such situations, and has taught me as much about painting as has the rich tradition of murals that constitutes some of the country’s greatest achievements in the field. 

This frenetic visual energy is mirrored on the floor of my studio, where my tendency to generate images in paint as fast as I can conceive of them, is evident. 

As Stephen Henderson, the generous and delightful powerhouse who sponsors this residency, and whose aesthetic flair in the design and adornment of the apartment where I am so lucky to live and work inspires me daily, told me as he toured me around the city on the day of my arrival, no image is taboo here, and the media is saturated with images of violence and gore that would require some adjustment for those accustomed to censored-down depictions of human life and death. 

Even the daily rainstorms here take on this urgent, all-embracing temperament, as I learned most memorably upon summiting the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan just outside the city.

 I bought the only shirt I seem to have been photographed in all summer from the woman with whom I am pictured. She made it with a tender steadfastness to craft and beauty that is so typical of those I have been privileged to encounter here. I will continually emulate this vitality and intensity in my work and life in my final two weeks here and afterward.

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