Brett Schultz
Brett Schultz says Mexican art now has “a voice connected to what is going on elsewhere”

It is an unusual place for a gallery — a small, glass-fronted view on to a hectic artery in Mexico City, where pedestrian passers-by are rare and the throb of traffic is constant.

But Yautepec, set up by Chicago-born Brett Schultz and his Mexican business partner Daniela Elbahara in 2008, is one of the city’s leading spaces for up-and-coming contemporary art, in a metropolis that stands out as a magnet for new talent.

The gallery is only part of the picture. Schultz is leading efforts to draw the world’s attention to the artists exhibiting in project spaces popping up across Mexico City. He founded the Material Art Fair, a two-year-old fringe festival held in February, concurrently with Mexico’s well-established Zona Maco fair. The upstart event, which the magazine Artforum described as “a true, low-rent alternative to Maco — small, energetic, friendly and unpredictable”, is attracting international visitors. This year, 85 per cent of galleries exhibiting were from overseas.

“It’s a very interesting time for Mexico City,” says Schultz, who has lived in the capital for eight years. He is sitting in a cramped office above the gallery floor, with books on a shelf, art works on the floor and giant rolls of bubble wrap threatening to invade what little space is left.

From glorifying the Mexican revolution in the 1920s and 1930s, Mexican art went through a “rupture”, with nationalistic and social themes in the 1950s, before the pendulum swung back to Mexican themes and influences from home-grown folk art in the 1980s. Since the 1990s, Mexican art has been “a voice connected to what is going on elsewhere”, says Schultz.

The millennial generation has imprinted a new dynamism on the scene, he says. “There’s been a shift — the rise of project spaces, a lot run by artists and curators who don’t necessarily have the same agenda as commercial galleries, that exist more for the purpose of exhibiting artists who perhaps don’t get a shot elsewhere or are pushing something new that’s potentially not commercially viable.

“These are spaces that have really taken over the scene lately. Material began in tandem with the rise of the artist-run project space scene here, because we felt there was great stuff going on that didn’t have visibility.”

Schultz knows the scene well: Yautepec was more of an alternative space than a commercial gallery when it opened in part of a taco restaurant lent by a friend’s family.

Vibrant, project spaces — such as Lulu, a tiny room behind an unmarked door in a bustling neighbourhood, or the even more off-the-beaten-track Biquini Wax, with the feel of a squat — “exist for a small group of cognoscenti” who know where to find them, in part because they show their own work there, he says. But the Material Art Fair, he adds, is a way to help commercially minded artists to sell, and non-commercial galleries to sustain their programmes.

The fair’s customers are Mexico’s young professionals, who have the disposable income to start a collection. Pieces sell for between $500 and $15,000, “but most rarely exceed the $3,000-$5,000 range”, Schultz notes. “It’s interesting to start at that level where your investment makes a difference in someone’s life. Every sale matters a lot for us as a gallery, and a lot for the artists, because it’s what allows them to keep producing.”

“Zona Maco has helped immensely to put Mexico City on the international radar,” Schultz says. The Material Art Fair is moving to a new, bigger location for next year’s edition, and expects an even bigger attendance.

Mexico has well established contemporary artists, such as Gabriel Orozco, who is considered a master of the small but profound gesture. At ease in a variety of disciplines, with his blurring of object and environment, he put the country’s art scene on the map in the 1990s.

Another star is Luis Felipe Ortega, who represented Mexico at this year’s Venice Biennale. But Schultz criticises what he sees as a “very strong concentration of power and visibility in just a few commercial galleries. As a result, they are typically what one thinks of when one thinks of Mexican contemporary art. That’s now changing.”

Mexico’s capital — a dynamic, demanding, rewarding metropolis — has emerged as an attractive and affordable place for a new generation of artists to set up studios, as well as a launch pad to get noticed. But it is a tough process. Very few commercial galleries are willing to bet on contemporary artists, and contemporary art from Mexico still has a lot to prove.

Tomás Díaz Cedeño’s ‘From the Texture to the Result’ show in 2014 at La Compañía de Acción Cultural, Mexico City
Tomás Díaz Cedeño’s ‘From the Texture to the Result’ show in 2014 at La Compañía de Acción Cultural, Mexico City

One of the things it is up against is an ingrained expectation from what Schultz calls the “global curatorial regime” for pieces to “look” Mexican — a trend he slams as “a totally colonialist, backward way of thinking”.

A new generation of artists is breaking with the trend of a “clichéd Mexican identity” of the past two decades and infusing pieces with only a subtle Mexican-ness, if any at all — “more subconscious than conscious”, Schultz says. One example is Tomás Díaz Cedeño, who recently showed his “Wetworks” exhibition at Yautepec.

“In a certain way [his work] is Mexican because he’s coming from the experience of growing up in Mexico City, feeling the impact of 70 years of rapid development. You feel the acrid smog, cars crashing at intersections because street lights aren’t working. You feel the impact of development everywhere here — it’s chaotic but exciting.”

Díaz Cedeño explores the relationship between technical materials, such as the cement used by dentists, and the body. The imposing, barely pink, screen-like sculptural pieces in “Wetworks” incorporate plastic mesh, stainless steel and paint, and are nearly identical from afar, but close up, the fragility of their materials is revealed.

Independent spaces make their mark

There may be plenty of contemporary art galleries in Mexico City today, but that was not always the case. Kurimanzutto was a trailblazer, starting in 1999 with pop-up exhibitions when owners José Kuri and Mónica Manzutto exhibited without premises. Their first show, “Market Economy”, for their friend Gabriel Orozco, the Mexican contemporary art pioneer, was on a market stall. They now represent more than 30 artists, among them prominent Mexican names such as Damián Ortega, Dr Lakra and Carlos Amorales.

Located in a beautiful, sprawling house on a quiet street, Marso is a fixture on the scene, and offers artist residencies. It was founded and is run by Sofía Mariscal, and its roster includes Luis Felipe Ortega, Mexico’s Venice Biennale representative, Virginia Colwell, the US artist, and Korean-American Jong Oh.

The Jumex Museum is a temple to contemporary art, created by Eugenio López Alonso, heir to Grupo Jumex, the privately owned juice company. He has built up one of Latin America’s biggest contemporary art collections, with some 2,700 works, said to be worth a total of $80m. It is also a great place to catch exhibitions by international artists such as Cy Twombly as well as Mexican talent.

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