Gustavo Mayoral & Friends, the current exhibition in the SWC gallery, is as disparate as it is striking. It is a four-way communion of four artists: Mayoral, Maung, Richardson, Pildas. They are a tetrarchy of photographers whose work travels through space and time, through material and border.
Gustavo Mayoral dominates the gallery. His muses are odes of inkjet. He finds inspiration in the flesh, be it woman or ramen. Mayoral is a Mexican artist, born in Tijuana, and his area of expertise is portraiture and fashion. He currently operates in San Diego and occupies his time as an internationally published photographer, who creates tools for digital photography and writes books on the subject.
Focus of the exhibition is his series of model photographs, more of which are available for viewing in his one-man show “TFP. Time for Print,” at the Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT). Pieces from this series on display at SWC are compositionally beautiful. The models are also beautiful. Therein lies the rub.
They are too perfect. They stand demurely in front of a robin-blue background and stare back with doe eyes, their plastic faces supposedly expressing what is perhaps playfulness or lust. Maybe innocence.
These large prints are not boring, but bland. If there was one piece that stands out among these model prints, it would be the red-haired girl. She has the poise of an Edwardian lady, delicate and sensible, her large green eyes looking off into the distance. There is something here that cannot be put to words. Others, including those hanging in the CECUT, are blank canvases of humanity. They might as well be pictures in an H&M catalog. Models are too stylized, too removed from themselves and from their clothes, be it a solitary green scarf draped across the sculpted muscles of a young man or a blood-red corset that softly embraces the sharp curves of a tattooed woman.
None of this could be said of the other series he is exhibiting in SWC.
In May 2013 Gustavo Mayoral collaborated with the photographer David Maung, who has worked in Tijuana since 2006. Maung focuses on the dynamic relationship between San Diego and Tijuana, and the rugged borderland. His work has been published in major newspapers on both sides of the border and this time he found himself on the Mexican side.
La Mesa is the Baja California state penitentiary and at that time it was abuzz with an unusual activity: a beauty pageant. “Miss La Mesa” was meant to provide the inmates with an opportunity to develop confidence, skills and self-esteem, and Maung and Mayoral were there to document it.
Maung’s photographs capture the private moments of these women as they prepared for the pageant. Contestants have had their womanhood taken from them. These images are powerful and stark in their contrasts. Between two oversized, gaudy heels solidly stands a pair of prisoner guard’s combat boots. A small stage draped in multicolor fabric has women standing around, glittered in the floodlights, a barbed wire fence encircling it like a razor-sharp cocoon.
Mayoral’s portraits of the contestants are personal and tender, unlike the large photographic prints on the adjoining wall. These are strong, rugged women, young and old, staring back with fearless expressions. Not professional models, ivory white and beautiful by Western conventions, these women are Mexican, who would not, in usual circumstances, have their portrait taken. Women with lined faces and fading tattoos, their quiet dignity burning through the cheap dresses and plastic jewelry. These apparently hardened criminals bear themselves regally.
Mayoral said the image that first brought him recognition is one he dubs as being a sort of “Vermeer girl.” The two portraits of the girl are a modern day “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” There is something about the way she gazes back at you, the way her wide-eyed gaze echoes in the soft curves of her face, the pout of her lips. She is almost innocent, naive. At the same time, she gazes back at you with a certain knowing, a certain provocativeness that unnerves and excites inviting the viewer to stare more.
Carlos Richardson’s work begins with his walks. Trekking alone to the Mt. Helix cross, he took pictures for the next few hours. His shots captured the shifting light of day as it struck the white stucco of the cross, resuscitated in colors like bright yellow on a dusk blue, tender pick on light blue, with the exception being the violently neon-magenta cross on black, the product of Richardson collaborating with Vallo Riberto, the curator of the show. Pictures of the cross, which is really more of an X and as such stripped of any religious meaning it might have, is turned and skewed and thrown about every which way. From a distance they seem like abstract paintings.
On another wall, there are a series of photographs, colored like candy. Some of the pictures are candy. Fifteen pictures show Dollar Store food, fresh from the package, some appetizing and others decidedly not. They all look lovely. Mayoral wanted to explore the concept of food that cost a single dollar. Was such a thing possible? Did calories become so cheap?
On each photo are a few lines of descriptive writing. Nutritional value, the taste of the item. Mayoral consumed all of the foodstuffs depicted in the series. Despite how he might have felt about the food, he always expressed gratitude for the food.
Pildas work is featured in a series of six pictures, early experiments in inkjet photography, and they depict lively scenes of a bygone world: 1970s Hollywood, street-side pimps and show-it-alls, seedy as it was thriving.
If the exhibition had a lesson to be learned it may be that anything can be inspiring and be capable of inciting awe and appreciation. Anything or anyone can be beautiful.