“Nahum B. Zenil: Witness to the Self”—an exhibition of provocative works by one of Mexico’s foremost contemporary artists
New York, NY (July 30, 1997)—Ushering in the new season at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery is a powerful retrospective exhibition of one of Mexico’s leading contemporary artists, Nahum Zenil. “Nahum B. Zenil: Witness to the Self,” the first solo museum show in the U.S. of this outstanding artist, opens on September 2 at the Grey. Some 60 works spanning Zenil’s entire artistic career of twenty years—from the mid-seventies to the present—will remain on view until November 1.
Zenil’s highly original style, his creative use of sources in Mexican art, and his intrepid confrontation of current social issues all make his art compelling and highly relevant. Admitting to an obsession with self-portraiture, Zenil confronts a myriad of moral and ethical issues through depictions of his own body. “I have always felt the need for self-analysis in my work in order to accept myself and the way I live,” Zenil has said, referring to his homosexuality. “I have always felt marginalized in my life and have experienced a great deal of solitude.”
Zenil’s collages, mixed-media works on paper, and paintings invoke traditional types of Mexican art. He re-interprets and re-invigorates the folk ex-voto (retablo) style that became popular in the nineteenth century. Other inspirations include the prints of Jose Guadalupe Posada, who depicted life in turn-of-the-century Mexico, and the art of Frida Kahlo. Like Kahlo’s, Zenil’s self-portraits are highly personal investigations into the states of the mind of their creator. Among recurring themes are his relations with his family (especially his mother), his past as a schoolteacher, his ambivalent feelings about Catholicism, and the realities of being a gay man in a conservative Latin culture.
Zenil is an ardent supporter of gay rights in Mexico and plays a prominent role in the Círculo Cultural Gay, an organization active since the early eighties. “One of the most powerful messages implicit in almost all of Zenil’s work is that of tolerance and the need for acceptance of difference,” notes Edward Sullivan, chair of the Department of Fine Arts at New York University and exhibition co-curator.
“Nahum B. Zenil: Witness to the Self,” was organized by The Mexican Museum in San Francisco and co-curated by Professor Sullivan and Clayton C. Kirking, director of the Adam and Sophie Gimbel Design Library at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. “This trenchant exhibition— invariably self-referential, sometimes shocking, always compelling—provides not only greater insight into Zenil’s work,” says Lynn Gumpert, director of the Grey Art Gallery, “but also into the social, political, and psychological circumstances of life in Mexico at the end of the twentieth century.”
“Nahum B. Zenil: Witness to the Self” is sponsored by the U.S.–Mexico Fund for Culture, the National Endowment for the Arts, and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Additional support is provided by the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York, the California Arts Council, Grants for the Arts of the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund, and the Abby Weed Grey Trust. Public programs are co-sponsored by the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at New York University and the Grey Art Gallery.
Accompanying the exhibition is a full-color 80-page bilingual catalogue in English and Spanish, published by The Mexican Museum, with essays by Mexican critics Agustin Arteaga and Cristina Pacheco, and by co-curator Edward J. Sullivan, as well as an in-depth interview with the artist.