Tijuana/Brooklyn-based artist Hugo Crosthwaite is having a prolific year. He gained attention for his standout exhibition “Tijuana Radiant Shine | Shattered Mural” this spring at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. As the Grand Prize recipient of the XI Bienal Monterrey FEMSA, he exhibited work at Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso Museum, Mexico City. He created site-specific wall drawing installations for “The House on Mango Street: Artists Interpret Community” at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, and for “Word Balloons” at San Diego State University’s (SDSU) downtown gallery coinciding with San Diego’s popular Comic-Con convention. Throughout all Crosthwaite’s work, his Tijuana roots, deeply humanistic approach, affinity for narrative, and palpable passion for drawing are abundantly reflected.
Crosthwaite grew up in Rosarito, where he spent his days going to school in Tijuana and evenings at his father’s curio shop, selling ceramics to American tourists, learning to speak English. To combat boredom in the shop, he recalls, “When I was very young my brother and I would pass the time by drawing… My brother would bring this huge piece of paper, he would start on one side and I would start on the other.” This led to impromptu battles involving spaceships or soldiers played out through drawing. Crosthwaite notes, “If you are drawing through line you are actually telling a story through real time.” This exercise set the stage for Crosthwaite’s swift draftsmanship and improvised narrative.
Tijuana Radiant Shine consists of 14 mixed-media drawings on panel inspired by Crosthwaite’s days spent walking through Tijuana passing taco stands and people in the market. Noting his desire to capture the aesthetic of Tijuana’s carnival-like atmosphere, Crosthwaite envisioned Tijuana Radiant Shine in the vein of a crossword puzzle with a central narrative and sub-stories branching out in geometric puzzle-like wall panels. Crosthwaite notes, “These pieces look like puzzle pieces, but they don’t actually belong together… your eye wants to try to put them together to make a cohesive story, but you cannot.”
Crosthwaite represents the first generation of his family to receive a college degree. At SDSU he took his first art history course and has since cultivated a style reflecting European masters, as well as pop culture. Crosthwaite notes he was drawn to “The Walking Dead” television series and its coinciding webisodes-backstories rendering fuller dimensional characters which influenced Tijuana Radiant Shine. He states, “I like the notion that you have the main story, but you have narratives that are tacked together and they make the main story more complex and complete. That’s what happened with the puzzle pieces… a sketch detail would continue to reference or be a tacked on story to the larger narrative.”
The diverse sub-stories give agency and dimension to the people who make up Tijuana. Like the Mexican-American artist Ramiro Gomez’s paintings highlighting domestic workers in Los Angeles Hockney-inspired settings, Crosthwaite’s work draws attention to those who are often overlooked. For his 2013 “California-Pacific Triennial” installation CARPAS, curated by Dan Cameron at the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), Crosthwaite created large-scale banners at the entrance of OCMA based on carpas, traditional theater in Mexico, which Crosthwaite describes as similar to vaudeville. Carpas arose after the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s and ’30s, the Mexican government sponsored theater groups presenting morality plays to propagate trust in authorities. Although carpas were government sponsored plays, they became satirical-taking on a life of their own with the poor ‘pelado’ underprivileged presented as the hero. For the CARPAS installation, Crosthwaite featured a migrant worker as the ‘pelado’ archetype. The underdog as the protagonist is a common thread of Crosthwaite’s work.
CARPAS, ‘Miss Bala,’Hugo Crosthwaite
Acrylic, ink, graphite, canvas, 12′ x 8′
Courtesy: Luis De Jesus Los Angeles
In addition to drawing attention to the ‘pelado,’ the CARPAS installation highlights border issues with its banner, ‘La Narizonia’-“slang for “big nose,” a pejorative for a liar and a play on words: nariz (nose) and Arizona.” Crosthwaite is confounded by Arizona’s wild-west culture with it extreme lax attitude toward gun possession and romantic notion of guns, while the state has taken a harsh and, according to Crosthwaite, corrupt stance on immigration, spreading false accounts of narcotic trade across the border. In response, Crosthwaite rendered a cowgirl/police figure in Arizona ex-governor Jan Brewer’s likeness donning a Pinocchio nose, pointing a gun. Regarding immigration he notes, “It has always been a policy of fear haunted by the idea that people are going to threaten their way of life. With immigration issues there is no one who can fight back, they don’t have the voice-the law is not on their side, so it’s a very simple issue that American politicians can attack.”
Today the border is again at the forefront of brash politics with Donald Trump milking immigration policy for sensational news coverage. For Crosthwaite the border is personal. He states, “The border issue for me is something that I grew up with because I crossed the border all of my life. When I was growing up you could cross it in 15 minutes, but now it can be three-four hours to cross.” Crosthwaite references the writing of Carlos Fuentes who describes the border as “a scar between two nations… between two areas that were one.”
Academics and artists often discuss the border as an ‘ideological and physical construct,’ especially in light of InSITE, a binational exhibition founded in 1991 across the San Diego-Tijuana region. Crosthwaite’s work A Tail for Two Cities (2010), shown at the San Diego Museum of Art inspired by Dickens’ novel, “A Tale of Two Cities” also plays on the concept of the border as a divide between two interconnected entities. He states, “Historically speaking it’s just these populaces that have been living on both sides and have been there since colonial times, the border is like this fictitious line that has been placed and forced. For someone to live within that line-it does affect your life. You cannot escape it, because you live with it every day.”
The second gallery at Luis De Jesus’ exhibition “Tijuana Radiant Shine Shattered Mural” featured the Shattered Mural component. The mural used to tell the story was symbolically shattered into 43 pieces and destroyed on the floor. Crosthwaite notes, “In the first room you see all these pieces that want to fit together and can’t, and in the second room you see a piece that was actually together, but then broken apart.” Shattered Mural represents the 43 college students massacred in Guerrero, Mexico on September 26, 2014 and “the mob with all these faces represents humanity being shattered.” The controversial story continues to make international news as the one-year anniversary was recently recognized with a protest of thousands in Mexico City. The story highlights the reported 25,000 people who have disappeared in Mexico since 2007. Crosthwaite states, politicians have questioned, “Why are we making a big fuss about these students?” He responds, “It’s not that we are making a fuss about these students, but these kinds of massacres that have been happening forever in Mexico-the thousands that have been killed by Mexican authorities.” On the back of each cutout panel, Crosthwaite placed patterned wallpaper implying the idea of exponential continuation in terms of potential deaths.
As the title suggests, Tijuana Radia
nt Shine | Shattered Mural offers a contradictory message of hope and bleak reality. The title stems from an instance Crosthwaite crossed the Tijuana/San Diego border listening to Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” while Keillor recited Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, The Hymn with the last line “the future radiant shines.” The line is emblematic of Crosthwaite’s hopes for Tijuana. He notes, “When living in NY, whenever I mentioned that I was a Mexican artist they assumed that I was from Mexico City-when I told them I was from Tijuana they would always say, ‘Oh the crime there,’ or ‘I got so drunk in Tijuana.'” Crosthwaite acknowledges points in Tijuana’s history of violence, but contends that today it has dissipated. He states, “Like Las Vegas, Tijuana has a ‘black legend’ to it… known as a city of vice and danger, but also adventure in a way. Many things are allowed or happen in Tijuana that wouldn’t in other places.” By linking Tijuana (a relatively young city) to Poe’s poem it presents Tijuana as a hopeful place of opportunity “where all migrants from Mexico face their attention as a way to cross into the US-so that’s where ‘radiant shine’ and the notion of having a radiant future come into the story of Tijuana.”
Crosthwaite’s work falls into two approaches of art making. He maintains a quiet studio practice honing his craft of drawing over time, but in recent years has taken on wall drawing installations conveying a temporal and performative quality. Earlier this year he created one such mural in response to Sandra Cisneros’ formative novel, The House on Mango Street for the National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago. He had four to five days to improvise a large-scale mural rendered in the presence of visitors. The House on Mango Street centers on a young girl that grows up in a predominately Latino neighborhood in Chicago that provides the foundation for her writing. Crosthwaite states, “She tries to escape her environment, but it’s the environment that fuels her novel, her narrative, her identity.” This approach parallels Crosthwaite’s own work as an artist. He notes, “When I was living in NY, I think it was the first moment that I embraced where I was from. I am a Mexican artist from Tijuana, not from Mexico City, but from Tijuana. I carry the narrative and aesthetic of where I come from.”
Tijuana is at the heart of Crosthwaite’s work, but he notes when he moved to NY in 2007 and walked its streets, graffiti, tattoo imagery, and comics “started invading my work.” This convergence is reflected in his recent site-specific mural created for “Word Balloons” at SDSU’s downtown gallery. Like Crosthwaite’s previous murals-the work was a feat in that he was given five to six days to cover a wall approximately 50-feet high by 25-feet wide. The process provides a fantastic means to activate gallery space. During the opening of “Word Balloons,” Crosthwaite drew while a DJ played music, gallery attendees drank and mingled, and curators/Comic-Con aficionados Neil Kendricks and Neil Shigley effused over comic illustration. Meanwhile, Crosthwaite maintained a steady focus allowing his massive drawing to unfold.
He began with a Tijuana girl’s face and “little by little started adding the body and details and then a narrative starting developing.” The work resulted in two girls in conversation. The girl on the left tells the story, on her right a girl takes in the story through a substantial comic bubble hovering above her head. The bubble is filled with archetypical comic characters paying homage to illustrators Alex Raymond and Jack Kirby-highlighting the Hulk, King Kong, and the sexed-up damsel in distress. Crosthwaite plays with positions of power and stereotypes giving the main girl agency using the Aztec symbol of speech traditionally reserved for people of authority. A human heart is shown on the chest of the other girl, Crosthwaite notes in Aztec culture it was “thought that the heart was the center of body and that thought came from the center because this is where you feel it.” Crosthwaite also added the tree of knowledge-placing comic illustration into the context of Aztec and Biblical symbols.
Today, Crosthwaite continues to work privately in his studio while also creating performative mural installations. Next year, we can expect a new body of studio work along the lines of Radiant Shine | Shattered Mural slated for the Pierogi Gallery, in Brooklyn. This November, Crosthwaite returns to the National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago to create a contemporary take on the Day of the Dead. In March 2016, he returns again to Chicago, for a residency at Mana Contemporary. In the meantime, he continues drawing daily in a sketchbook the issues that he lives with, mapping out images that “are my history, my own fears, and wishes… I want the border to disappear-these kinds of things permeate through my work.”
Tijuanerias, 2012, Hugo Crosthwaite
Courtesy: Luis De Jesus Los Angeles
Shattered Mural, 2015, Hugo Crosthwaite
Installation view at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles