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‘I tend to shy away from moral statements’: Mexican artist looks at oil, wealth and history | Art

Jglimpsing the exhibition in gods we trust by Mexican artist Minerva Cuevas is like wading through fragments of enormous counter-narratives that recount hundreds of years of Mexican history. Like the proverbial tip of the iceberg, the offerings Cuevas offers the audience seem so much more suggestive, and everything about the show seems to fit together in an incredibly complicated way. Juxtaposing elements of ancient indigenous cultures with 20th century advertisements of oil conglomerates and appropriating images of Mexico’s most beloved and institutionalized artists, the show challenges audiences to see below the surface and connect the dots.

Presented at Kurimanzutto New York until April 15, in gods we trust is a truly ambitious and far-reaching exhibition. Cuevas presented his work as an attempt to add complexity to an overly simple story, bringing back many pieces that official accounts left out. “I wanted to find these more complex narratives — not everything is Aztec,” Cuevas said with a laugh. “We don’t know enough about these stories. I wanted to go further than this discourse of the Aztecs and the Mayas. Bit by bit, you get these accounts of economic processes and social history.

Cuevas is known for working on huge surfaces and making big statements, so it’s no surprise that the show’s headliner is a giant piece called The Trust – a 10ft relief collage tall bringing together 25 corporate logos, ancient native gods and symbols, national emblems, and more in a fever dream of history. Impressive and visionary, The Trust includes its own glossary to help viewers navigate the different systems of world order that Cuevas introduces into the conversation.

Orbiting The Trust are other collections of works exploring the same historical, political and economic narratives. For example, a dozen reproduced vintage mid-century advertisements show the now laudable ways the oil industry once positioned itself with consumers eager to exploit the possibilities of fossil fuels. There’s also the artist’s curious Petro series, which stacks Aboriginal-themed animal heads on barrels of oil. And the Epopeyo de un pueblo collection plucks elements from Diego Rivera’s singular mural Epopeya del pueblo Mexicano, reproducing them in strange groupings of stark, porcelain-white relief.

Minerva Cuevas, installation view from In Gods We Trust, kurimanzutto, New York, 2023
Photography: Courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City / New York. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Self-taught, Cuevas began making video art as a teenager before pursuing studies in art school in the mid-1990s. At the time, she felt very isolated from contemporary art trends in the world. Mexico and relied on a do-it-yourself philosophy. She began exhibiting her work at public markets and connecting with other street artists. “I was the only one with a video camera, so I helped other artists. I recorded their shows. We helped each other and it was very discreet.

Cuevas was drawn into the anti-globalization movement and fascinated by the Zapatistas, who emerged in force on January 1, 1994 against the institution of the North American Free Trade Agreement. She recalled that these moves reflected her own beliefs, as she had lost faith in government institutions in Mexico. “The first logo I changed was related to the government, not a corporation. It had to do with the national lottery – using poverty statistics in relation to the huge monetary prize offered by the lottery.

Throughout her career, Cuevas has bristled with the term “activist,” considering what she does as something completely different — art. True to form, in gods we trust doesn’t feel like it’s trying to convey a certain message about colonialism or environmental degradation as much as it tries to bring together so many disparate pieces into a thesis on this has been happening in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times to today. “I’m just putting things together, like a cultural experience. Let’s put these things together and see what happens. It’s not me who criticizes the oil companies. I tend to shy away from moral statements – I think moral statements are the worst thing for connecting socially with people.

Minerva Cuevas, installation view from In Gods We Trust, kurimanzutto, New York, 2023
Photography: Courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City / New York. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Cuevas sees his work with logos as tied to “archaeology,” 21st century corporate branding existing on a spectrum that also includes native gods, national emblems, and even stock charts. “I wanted to use logos as a way to access people’s image banks, as a way to connect to our visual language. As I examined the logos, I discovered that there were commonalities in their production – certain national resources appear again and again, animals, various colors.

For Cuevas, the works she produced for in gods we trust also marked a personal turning point as an artist – long shunning artists like Diego Rivera for their association with the power centers of Mexican culture, she has began to see this art in a different light, realizing that its centrality and connection to pre-Hispanic culture was an opportunity. “Younger generations have lost interest in the historic Rivera movement because it is so institutionalized. By creating this art, it was the first time that I could identify with the cultural history of Mexico. Car in gods we trust, Curvas has extracted a series of motifs from Rivera’s masterful mural Epopeyo del pueblo mexicano, completely decontextualizing these elements and forming them into a series of all-white assemblages. In this way, she alludes to how the narratives surrounding the indigenous peoples of Mexico and its enormous natural resources have been separated and reformed so many times.

The show also features a series of reproduced vintage advertisements of oil companies. For today’s audience, many ad copy read like wildly cynical parodies – for example, one ad exuberantly proclaims “Each Day Humble [Oil] Provides enough energy to melt 7 million tons of glacier! The ads offer implicit commentary on how the image of oil extraction has transformed over the past 70 years, though it remains central to Mexico’s economy and its ties to the rest of the world. .

“Visitors were really curious about the vintage advertisements,” Cuevas said. “They find it incredible that they have not undergone any change! You can see the history of oil industry interests there – in the 1940s, it was war-related, and racism played a big role in politics and economics; in the 1950s car culture was the main interest; later in the 1960s, they were very much linked to the natural elements and the landscape.

Although this is an exhibition about Mexico and its history, it fits perfectly in a New York gallery. In fact, Cuevas enthusiastically pointed out the exhibit’s many resonances with New York’s history, including the connection between Rivera and the Rockefellers, who first commissioned the former’s mural at the RCA Building in the Rockefeller Center, but then dismissed it as communist propaganda. There are also many other lesser-known connections: for example, Cuevas told me that Chase Bank was integral to planning the city’s water infrastructure. And there were also smaller, more incidental connections. “One of my oil drums has a torch on it – I ended up using this torch as part of the main mural, and someone pointed out that it was related to the Statue of Liberty. C It was really a beautiful coincidence. The pieces I chose for New York are very specific to this context. I respond to the city.


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