Gabriel Villa: Blurring the Lines at the National Museum of Mexican Art

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The exhibition Lineas Borrosas by Chicago artist Gabriel Villa opened this summer at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. Curated by Cesareo Moreno and Ricardo Serment, the exhibition, which translates as “Blurred Lines”, explores the many issues that are confront many of our inner city communities including the one surrounding the National Museum of Mexican Art. Some of these issues include identity, social justice, religion, poverty and public safety. Villa was born in El Paso, Texas and grew up seeing firsthand the injustice and the harsh issues of the US/Mexico border. After moving to Chicago, such impression continued to attract him to the social realities of Chicago’s Pilsen community. The exhibition takes stage in the heart of a migrant bi-cultural community where the American dream sometimes feels to be a distant reality. A piece of “El Barrio” comes together in the hands of Gabriel Villa as a straight forward commentary on social and political issues that are often kept hidden from public view or become propaganda during political campaigns.

The works selected for the exhibition include painting, drawing and sculptural assemblage. Recurring in them are references of religious, social and political significance. A triptych titled “MOM” welcomes the viewer to the exhibition. There, three male figures wearing hoodies in blue, red and brown respectively stand in a relaxed pose as if waiting at the local bus stop. Each figure’s face has been replaced with iconic images of praying hands, an eagle and a US coin. Behind them, each panel presents an architectural motif with each of the letters of the word MOM. Praying hands refer to German artist Albrecht Durer’s graphic work known as “The praying hands”. “Years ago while taking the Red line train (CTA) headed southbound a man handed me church propaganda and asking for donations. The handout listed place and time for next meeting to basically “get saved ”. The logo on the handout was Durer’s “Praying hands” this must of gotten the ball rolling sort of speak on thinking how art motifs become part of popular culture,” explains Villa when asked about the inspiration behind this iconic image which constantly reappears in his work.

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The symbolic image of hands as supplication also takes root in the Latin American experience with Catholicism and its new interpretations under migrant movements in the United States. In works such as “Mouse Trap,” a three-dimensional structure resembling a building appears to be aesthetically beautiful as seen from a distance. At close inspection, one finds the external façade completely covered with ordinary mice traps. The juxtaposition of the beautiful with the mundane and repulsive enriches Villa’s interpretation of the social ills of our own communities and reflects on the underlying truths beneath the veneer of outward appearance.

The social content in the exhibition positions the viewer with immediacy of the geographic reality outside of museum walls. Perhaps one, who comes into the museum looking to momentarily escape the menace of the social struggle, finds himself/herself delved back into it in the works of Gabriel Villa. It is in such blurred line of realities that often fill our TV screens and social media posts that Villa excels as honest storyteller of “El Barrio.”

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