Eduardo Sarabia's "Moctezuma's Revenge" Packs a Punch at Tempe's ASU Art Museum

Categories: Review, Visual Art

Sarabia_Happy_hires.jpg
Courtesy the I-20/Judelson Collection, New York.
Sarabia's Happy (2011). Oil on canvas, 55.9 x 78.34 inches.

What appear to be ordinary graffiti-tagged bedsheets, tablecloths, or canvases hanging in the show are as delusory as the drug world itself. They actually are intricate, handloomed weavings Sarabia calls narcomantas, literally "drug blankets." He commissioned weavers in Guadalajara to create textile versions of narco signs spray-painted on sheets and hung on freeway overpasses to direct passing drug mules to their destinations. On occasion, the signs are employed as no-nonsense warnings to cartel rivals, punctuated by dead bodies dangling next to them. Beatles' lyrics are favored as encrypted messages, like "El amor es todo" (love is all you need) and "Amor es la repuesta" (love is the answer).

Sarabia gives us a literal window into the hidden world of drug lords overflush with cash in The Gift (2008), the exhibition's pièce de résistance. First seen through a wire-embedded window and consisting of an odd assortment of multiple ceramic objects and shipping boxes stacked on industrial shelving common to big-box stores (yes, they have Costco in Mexico), the installation was inspired by the strange, usually garish acquisitions narcos are wont to acquire and display as booty -- quite flagrantly in recent years on Twitter and other social media. Some dealer favorites popping up online include bricks of cash, gold- and silver-encrusted assault weapons, exotic pets like lions, tigers and jaguars, jewel-pocked hand guns, expensive cars, baggies of sinsemilla, over-the-top houses in the mode of Scarface's cheesy Tony Montana (labeled by the media as narcotectura) and, of course, big-busted party pretties. Sarabia's take is a latter day, high-tech Mexican version of those 18th-century European wunderkammer, or cabinets of curiosities, filled with strange objects to show off one's sophistication and wealth.

Each of Sarabia's objects, some of which appear to be half-submerged, is a story unto itself, with sub rosa references to kitsch, smuggled drugs, ill-gotten gains, illegal immigration, and Mexican mythology. An in-your-face allusion to killing federales (Mexican federal police) comes in the form of a reclining fiberglass officer on one of the shelves. He bears a close resemblance to Juan Soldado, a folk saint executed for raping a young girl in the 1930s but very popular in Tijuana. Be sure to look for the ceramic mermaids, with their amputated tails on show separate from their torsos; they resemble blond versions of 19th-century Mexican religious images of la anima sola, a female soul burning in the flames of purgatory, shackled arms reaching heavenward.

Not to be discounted are the artist's large-scale paintings of photos he's taken during his travels, which he has used as paint palettes in his studio. Opaque swirls and globs of paint partially obliterate the photos' subject matter. Toying with illusion and reality, Sarabia makes it hard to tell whether these are actually paintings or merely photographic blow-ups of defaced photos. In the context of this show, the imagery takes on an unshakably sinister quality, as does the rest of the work in "Moctezuma's Revenge." Deceptively artisanal in form, Sarabia's folk art-like creations in this noteworthy exhibition pack a punch you don't see coming, one that lingers for a very long time.

"Moctezuma's Revenge" continues through April 26 at ASU Art Museum, 10th Street and Mill Avenue, Tempe, Arizona; for more information, call 480-965-2787.

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