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Art Review

Confronting complex realities of Mexican society

Marcela Armas stars in her video, “Ocupacíon (Occupation),’’ which records a performance on the streets of Mexico City. Marcela Armas stars in her video, “Ocupacíon (Occupation),’’ which records a performance on the streets of Mexico City. (RAFAEL BURILLO)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / October 11, 2011

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DISPONIBLE: A Kind of Mexican Show

At: Barbara and Steven Grossman Gallery, School of the Museum of Fine Arts, 230 The Fenway, through Nov. 19. 617-369-3718, www.smfa.edu/exhibitions

‘Disponible: A Kind of Mexican Show,’’ up through Nov. 19 at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, dives with humor and pathos into Mexican society and some of its ills - a society that has also generated a vital contemporary art scene. But not all of the work on view feels specific to Mexico.

“Disponible’’ (the title means both disposable and available), which features pieces by Mexican artists, succeeds when it is rooted in the particular. The best works - and sometimes the most uncomfortable ones - introduce us to individual Mexicans and their stories. The exhibit debuted at the San Francisco Art Institute. The institute’s director of exhibitions and public programs, Hou Hanru, and independent curator Guillermo Santamarina organized the show.

In his spare, moving memoir of a video, “Matamoros,’’ Edgardo Aragón retraces the route his father took from Oaxaca to Tamaulipas when he was trafficking drugs into the United States. Aragón leads us through lush landscapes as his father’s words narrate the trip in voice-over. The artist’s great feat is that he tells his father’s tale without judgment or castigation, sharing the drug trafficker’s dreams in a way that make him a compelling protagonist.

Mauricio Limón turns his video camera on sometimes overlooked pockets of Mexico City’s population. In the brief, comic “Bizco Merolico Chorus,’’ Limón gathers subway vendors together to sing out their sales pitches. They look weary as they call out such lines as “Get it here, world encyclopedia.’’ Limón has orchestrated their pitches into sonic art. In another sharp, funny video, he follows the boastful exclamations of the men who wield squeegees at traffic lights.

“Las llaves de la ciudad (The Keys to the City),’’ the remains of a performance staged by Teresa Margolles, fill one corner of the gallery. Margolles invited keymaker Antonio Hernández Camacho to Boston from Ciudad Juárez. Camacho had a shop there for 40 years, carving words into keys and selling them to tourists. But since the city has been ravaged with violence, Camacho has closed his business. At the Museum School, Camacho made keys for visitors, leaving behind notes and several keys strung up on a wire, ironically emblazoned with words and phrases such as “simpatico’’ and “safe haven.’’ Each reads at the top “CD Juárez.’’

While poignant and illuminating, there’s also a discomforting element to Limón’s and Margolles’s work. Having these workers demonstrate their skills can be seen as ennobling. But the added level of theatricality in turning labor into performance art evokes a sideshow quality to some of these pieces that left me ill at ease.

Marcela Armas stars in her own short video, “Ocupacíon (Occupation),’’ which records a performance in Mexico City. Armas strapped on a backpack equipped with five red horns and entered traffic on foot. It’s funny and disturbing to see a young woman amid all the cars, blowing her horns - like anyone caught in a traffic jam, bored and irritable, but here also vulnerable amid a sea of anonymous drivers.

As you walk into the courtyard of the Museum School, you hear sounds of scraping and the clang of metal on metal. They broadcast from Arturo Hernández Alcázar’s installation, “No Trabajes Nunca/ Never Work (transformation of knowledge into work, work into energy, and energy into a hot soup),’’ a loudspeaker mounted on piping suspended a few feet off the ground. The piece is made from scrap salvaged from industrial waste dumps, and the sound was recorded at one such site outside Mexico City, where people make money by rescuing and recycling what they can. This piece touches on poverty, but also wittily addresses capitalism’s easy-come, easy-go circulation of material into trash, where it enters another cycle of potential use and value.

Two other works (a film, Natalia Almada’s “El General,’’ screening on Oct. 18, was not made available for review) are less specific to Mexico. Manuel Rocha Iturbide has wired drums to a computer that sets them humming at different frequencies, layering like voices in a chorus in his “I Play The Drums With Frequency.’’ The sounds are captivating and surprising, lulling rather than percussive.

Héctor Zamora’s two-part “White Noise’’ installation explores the availability of public space as a metaphor for ownership and colonization. Zamora set up 500 white flags on a public beach in New Zealand as part of the Auckland Arts Festival earlier this year. In the first part of the piece, a video projection, they flap noisily in the wind as the waves rush in. Wall text informs us that the installation was originally scheduled to stay up for three weeks, until the Auckland City Council limited it to one day. So Zamora transplanted the flags to a warehouse in Auckland, and now, in part two of the piece, several dozen of them fill a Museum School gallery.

In the private warehouse, Zamora didn’t have to deal with the city council; he could keep his flags hoisted as long as he wanted. Public space, however, is more regulated. Inside, of course, the flags don’t really fly. They just hang there, flaccid.

Ultimately, there’s something disjointed about “Disponible.’’ The works filled with rich specifics and rooted in a sense of place are more compelling than the broader, headier installations by Iturbide and Zamora. Maybe that’s why “Disponible’’ is only “a kind of Mexican show.’’

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.

DISPONIBLE: A Kind of Mexican Show

At: Barbara and Steven Grossman Gallery, School of the Museum of Fine Arts, 230 The Fenway, through Nov. 19. 617-369-3718, www.smfa.edu/exhibitions