Licenciado Verdad: A moment and a place

Licenciado Verdad was a critical moment for art in Mexico and beyond. It was also a place—a street in Mexico City’s historic center that became a mecca for artistic innovation. And it was a group of artists whose originality resulted in one of the most vibrant regional trends to emerge on the global art stage.

A moment

Up until the 1990s, Mexican art followed in the tradition of Western art. “It was all about paintings or sculptures that were absolutely visual,” says Patrick Charpenel, co-founder of Ediciones MP, which recently published a signature book on Licenciado Verdad in partnership with J.P. Morgan. “But with the generation of Licenciado Verdad, something radically changed.”

Starting in the 1980s, a new generation of artists began disrupting through the use of television, video and performance, as well as rethinking “our cultural codes of contact. The political and economic system in Mexico was in a terrible crisis,” says Mr. Charpenel. “It was important to introduce something as complex and as political as what this generation of artists produced in their own work.”

For example, Minerva Cuevas began replacing the original bar codes in supermarkets so that customers would unknowingly pay less for an item. “She was playing with the economic structure, introducing something in a discrete way that was modifying the experience of people consuming these big companies,” explains Mr. Charpenel, an artist and later curator who was part of Licenciado Verdad.

This kind of artistic disruption was particularly true after the 1985 earthquake, says Patricia Sloane, who owned a gallery in Mexico City for 15 years starting in 1980 and edited Licenciado Verdad with Kurt Hollander. “I awoke at seven in the morning on September 19, and the city had been totally destroyed. It really changed the equation of how people related to each other.”

A place

It was following the earthquake that a diverse group of artists began to congregate in the downtown historic district. A dead-end street that occupies one block, Licenciado Verdad was home to several institutions that formed the center of artistic innovation: a large residential Colonial building where many artists had apartments; Ex Teresa, a 17th-century church transformed into an art performance space; and El Nivel, a cantina where the artists would gather to question norms and discuss new ideas. “Besides El Nivel, which is now closed, the street looks almost exactly the same,” says Ms. Sloane. “The first artists who began living there had parties. And that’s the way everybody connected—through parties. Artists Maria Guerra and Eloy Tarcisio, for example, attended a party, heard an apartment was available, and rented it right away.”

Lower rents were part of the appeal of living downtown. Artists were also away from the mainstream art crowd and felt freer to experiment. “It was also a very leisurely way of living. The best markets in the city were down there,” notes Ms. Sloane.

These markets and the workshops of sign makers, ironworkers and other small industries served as sources of inspiration for the Licenciado Verdad artists. They bought items in the markets and collaborated with the workshops to “begin rethinking the possibilities of understanding a very fascinating context in history, using completely different kinds of materials,” explains Mr. Charpenel.

Francis Alÿs and the master sign maker Juan García in front of an image of Luis Donaldo Colosio, which the master painted for a PRI campaign, Mexico City, 1994.

“They understood that not only was it a vibrant city, but it was a city full of small workshops that were absolutely contemporary, but also traditional,” continues Mr. Charpenel. “That’s why Francis Alÿs began to collaborate with sign painters. That’s why Thomas Glassford began doing sculptures working with metal. And that’s why Silvia Gruner began using common house cleaning tools. Incorporating these elements in their art is what made it so regional and unique.”

“They would just walk down into the street and find some very exotic materials,” says Ms. Sloane. “Exotic, meaning they would buy imported colored papers or gourds from the markets. It was the city that changed the work. That is a very important part of why there is this new aesthetic attached to Mexican art production. It’s not street art; it is art that comes from the streets.”

Silvia Gruner, Genetics or the Annunciation, 1994.

A group

The originality of the Licenciado Verdad artists soon caught international attention. In part, this was because artists from Europe and the United States, as well as from Mexico and Latin America, made up the group: Francis Alÿs from Belgium, Melanie Smith from England, Michael Tracy from the United States, Lorna Scott Fox from Turkey, and Ibrahim Miranda from Cuba, to name a few.

These artists brought new influences and exchanged ideas by organizing their own galleries and shows. “There was a lot of excitement in the originality of how these artists were working,” notes Mr. Charpenel. “We didn’t believe very much in the big institutions, and we were not trying to show our work in museums or even big galleries. We organized exhibitions and galleries in a totally independent way.”

It was Aldo Flores, a native of Mexico City, who realized the need for more independent galleries while traveling in New York City and seeing the role galleries in SoHo played in promoting the work of diverse and new artists. “I remember thinking, wow, Mexico really needs something like this because we have extraordinary artists, but they don’t get opportunities,” recalls Mr. Flores, who along with Ms. Sloane and others began opening galleries to showcase the work of Licenciado Verdad artists.

Exhibitions could just as easily spring up apart from a formal gallery show. As Mr. Charpenel says, “In Licenciado Verdad, every place was the perfect place for an exhibition, which we often organized with no money and with the idea simply of gathering friends to discuss art, culture, politics—everything. What converged in Licenciado Verdad were these cultural differences, but we were sharing the age, the energy, the excitement. It was a way to be connected to the rest of the world, but it was also a place where we could talk about our differences and our own identity. And so it was really exciting.”

A book

Licenciado Verdad is now also a book, the first in a series that will be produced by Ediciones MP in partnership with J.P. Morgan. “It’s very exciting for J.P. Morgan to be able to partner in the production of this book,” says Mark S. Roe, Head Curator of the JPMorgan Chase Art Collection. “Licenciado Verdad is an oral history of a particular time and place in Mexico City with all of the artists and curators who were there relating their perspectives. This is a very rare document that will be important for future generations.”

“You don’t often find that there is one particular place and time that has had such a precise repercussion on the whole global art scene,” continues Ms. Sloane. “And it’s been a lot of fun actually because it is not a strictly academic book. It is to remind ourselves where we came from and how it was a very important moment.”

To learn more about Licenciado Verdad, we invite you to contact us, and a J.P. Morgan representative will be in touch with you.

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