- Curating at the Edge: Artists Respond to the U.S./Mexico Border by Kate Bonansinga
Kate Bonansinga served as the founding director of the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts of the University of Texas at El Paso from 2004 to 2012. [End Page 350]
Each of this volume’s 12 chapters presents an exhibition highlight from Bonansinga’s tenure at the Rubin, a period during which the center rose to prominence as an energetic venue for contemporary art in the U.S.-Mexico border’s largest metropolitan area. Bonansinga’s curatorial program emphasized solo and group shows by early- to mid-career artists of the Americas, whom she invited to exhibit based on the following criteria: “a familiarity with the geographic territory, a proven track record of addressing the U.S./Mexico border in their art, an interest in borders and boundaries, and a high level of ambition that translates to an upward career trajectory” (p. 8).
Bonansinga’s place-based values became the basis for exciting, innovative shows featuring a range of contemporary aesthetic modalities, including installation and environmental art, process and systems-based art, and performance. Her chapters contextualize various art projects commissioned by the Rubin within the artists’ careers and global artistic currents. Several focus on exhibitions by internationally renowned figures from the border region, including Marcos Ramírez “Erre,” Liz Cohen, Adrian Esparza, and Tania Candiani. I personally found captivating the installations by collaborators SIMPARCH, Tom Leader Studio, and Atherton|Keener, which combined design, architecture, and studio art techniques to produce evocative pieces using basic elements such as light, earth, water, and waste.
Bonansinga’s curatorial preferences clearly downplay both vernacular and traditional media. The former tend to enter the Rubin through abstraction and defamiliarization, as in Adrian Esparza’s deconstructed sarapes, Alejandro Almanza Pereda’s biomorphic inner tubes, and Margarita Cabrera’s soft sculptures. Explicitly proscribed are the ethnographic image repertoires associated with the Chicano Movement and Neomexicanismo—that is, no “virgins and bloody hearts” (p. x). In one chapter, in fact, Bonansinga regrets the identity-based rationale subtending one group exhibition that presented new work by Mexican-American artists, for it departed from her general inclination to privilege art as a conduit of social identifications forged through interactive process and relation to place.
Blending memoir, institutional history, and art criticism, Bonansinga’s prose has the feel of a professional diary. Her chapters offer candid impressions of particular artists, glimpses into the behind-the-scenes negotiations that take place in the everyday operation of a university art gallery, and insight into how to pull off spectacular and complex installations on a modest budget. Curatorship here emerges as both tastemaking and project management, involving constant coordination with a range of institutional players, from art department faculty and students, to the Rubin staff, campus security, the university president, and the Mexican consulate. One of the most interesting cases presented in the volume describes the Rubin’s delicate back-and-forth with Mexican officials over the exhibition title that eventually became Contra Flujo/Against the Flow: Independence and Revolution, a 2010 show commemorating the centennial of the Mexican Revolution and the bicentennial of Mexican Independence. [End Page 351]
From its vantage point at a public institution in the border region, this book also offers insight into the complex circulation of “border art” within global art worlds. By the mid 2000s when Bonansinga assumed her position as director of the Rubin, the heady arts initiatives of the early NAFTA years, such as the inSITE exhibitions held in San Diego/Tijuana between 1992 and 2005, had ceded to smaller-scale, somber projects that bore witness to current events such as post-9/11 border enforcement, narco-vio-lence, the feminicidio, and environmental degradation.
The rise in drug-related violence in Ciudad Juárez during the mid-2000s had significant effects on the Rubin’s exhibitions: during that period University of Texas employees were eventually prohibited from traveling...