Once again, Trópico de Nopal’s Reyes Rodríguez raised the bar on himself with an extravagant yet still elegantly simple “Ofrendas 2010” Calavera Fashion Show & Walking Altars exhibition. Now in it’s ninth year, the annual Dia de Los Muertos couture and ambulatory altar spectacular has become a signature Day of the Dead art event and easily ranks among the most interesting and enjoyable exhibitions mounted in a city that has elevated the annual Muertos celebration to a city-wide festival on the order of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro.
Complimenting a visceral, and emotionally moving altar installation organized inside the Trópico de Nopal Gallery and Artspace by Marialice Jacob, the Calavera fashion show brings together a score of artists for an evening of cutting-edge fashion, design and visual art that unfolds along a custom runway created to enhance the semblances to a haute couture seasonal debut. The individual fashion designs—as often elaborated as conceptual or performance art pieces as they are staged in runway promenade—are dedicated to family members, well known artists, personalities or and close friends no longer among the living. In the case of Abel Alejandre’s "Gallo Giro," a stunning rooster suit built with a spring action spine and neck to which a human sized rooster head was affixed, the dance moves with which Alejandre showcased his creation, complete with a bobbing cockscomb and feet that were entirely realistic down to the spikes and spurs. My tocayo is a gifted draughtsman whose almost photorealistic large scale graphite drawings have now given way to silkscreens and monoprints produced at Self Help Graphics and three dimensional work such as the delightful gallo macho who brought a smile to everyone’s face with a Mexican funky chicken dance to the sound of an obscure south of the border band called, guess what… Los Funky!
Conversely, Poli Marichal, whose puppet entries have stolen the show in previous years, went one step further this time by becoming her own harlequin marionette in a touching mime play paying tribute to a fallen family member. As the white-faced, child-like cross between a court jester and a sad, motherless orphan, Marichal came onto the stage to a mournful tune. In one hand, she carried a bird-cage with a metallic, heart-shaped balloon bearing a photo recuerdo. In the other, she carried a wistful butterfly net. When the balloon was un-caged and released into the night sky, Marichal waved goodbye. Around me, more than one pair of eyes in the sell-out, standing room only crowd was damp with sadness. The knot in my own throat was a palpable weight as all of us watched the helium balloon float slowly and forlornly away.
Moving 180 degrees away from the folklórico skirts hand sewn by his own mother and printed with his ornately intricate designs in gold last year, printmaker Daniel González entered a monumental calavera puppet complete with moving parts and a glowing electric light source in the center of each dark eye socket hollow. To help you imagine the scale of his creation, it is enough to say that it took three men to move the giant skeleton across the runway and work all the hinged, superhuman sized limbs, uh… er… bones.
New to the fashion show as an individual artist, Elena Esparza has, of course, assisted in the creation and exhibition of pieces by members of her family for several years now. This year, she joined the fray with a live tableaux populated by humanoid symbols of earth and a treasured garden. In this instance, it would be safe to assume that the garden represented is Proyecto Jardin, a project with which Esparza has been associated since its inception. Attired as trees, bee hives and flowers, the denizens of Esparza’s earth were a call to environmental action and a gorgeous romp through Esparza’s eclectic chromatic and textural palette. Cloaked in her lush, vibrant designs, the models in Esparza’s piece were regal in their symbolic roles as elements in the natural world we must protect. While Esparza is heir to the traditional healing arts as a child of Ofelia Esparza, an accomplished artist and altarista, Esparza’s first fashion foray marks the beginning of her ascent as an artist with a conscience who embodies, perhaps by blood, a sense for the majesty of our ancestry and the the earth as our mother.
CiCi Segura, as evidenced by her entry this year, is an heir to David Alfaro Siqueiros. Her walking altar in tribute to the famed Mexican muralist, currently the subject of retrospectives, mural restoration efforts and discussion throughout the LA art environs, was a fitting addition to the dialogue on the master’s legacy. Particularly original was the three-dimensional fabric banner cape bearing stuffed cloth bas-relief replicas of well known Siqueiros paintings. It was at once a witty remark on all the Siqueiros hype and a visually striking exercise that once again pegged Segura as a risk taker and a visionary pioneer who responds to contemporary art currents and still somehow manages to make them her own. Segura’s original designs and her bold use of color and texture on textile were in keeping with her distinctive and always witty artistic explorations.
Taken directly from current headlines, the tongue-in-cheek piece by Carolyn Castaño was a direct reference to the recent news that a former Mexican beauty pageant queen had been arrested alongside her narco-kingpin boyfriend. Castaño makes her statement by depicting the narco as a fat cat “patron” who can buy love from and status through a romance with a popular beauty contest winner.
Robert Quijada took popular lore around Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers and created a meaningful and fearlessly innovative sculpture using flat metal bands decorated with mosaic tile to evoke the towers built by the Italian bricklayer using left over materials so many years ago. Made to be worn as a mini-replica of Rodia’s opus magnum on the shoulders, the piece ranked easily among the best of the presentation from a technical and visual perspective. Of all the fashion tributes, Quijada’s was the only one based on a public art piece that is so entirely indicative of Los Angeles. Stretching another into the air , Quijada’s walking altar was poetic in its evocation of a monument born in the nearly miraculous dream of an Italian bricklayer, monument so structurally sound it has remained standing for well over half a century.
The round up would be remiss if there was no mention of the collaboration between Rocio Ponce and Joe Bravo. A flamenco dancer and musician (frontwoman for La Bestia), Ponce pounced triumphantly upon the runway in a piece by Bravo, who has often worked with models who bring their own talents and strengths to the process. The Coatlicue piece he did with poet and performer Arianna Gouveia two years ago was a case in point. Bravo is a gifted painter who turned giant tortillas into canvases that have brought him world-wide acclaim, but as his work is brought to life on the calavera fashion stage, the dimensional aspects of his art are refined. The skeletal hand transformed into a flamenco dancer comb worn in Ponce’s slicked back hair was riveting.
Through it all, Reyes Rodriguez spins a soundtrack punctuated with rhythm and style, segues into music selected expressly for each piece and transitional overdub. Lalo Alcaraz, a notoriously acerbic comic commentator who co-founded the satirical comedy troupe Chicano Secret Service before becoming a nationally syndicated political cartoonist, is a go-to MC who brings humor and razor wit to his role as a host in the commentator box. More than a fashion show, the event brings together a community of artists who are given free reign to create with out the constraints of a gallery and the stationary nature of the traditional altar. Reyes has uncorked an avalanche of sight and sound that explores the limits of what Día de Los Muertos has come to represent for Latino artists who are allowed to venture forth with explorations that both reinvent the Day of the Dead traditions and breathe new life into them at the same time.