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Pedro Reyes and his nostalgia for the past arrive in Los Angeles

The Mexican artist is holding his first exhibition in LA at the Lisson Gallery, focusing on monumental sculptures and references to pre-Hispanic cultures

Luis Pablo Beauregard
La exposición de Pedro Reyes en la galería Lisson combina su obra gráfica en papel amate con esculturas monumentales talladas en piedra volcánica.
Pedro Reyes’ exhibition at the Lisson Gallery in LA combines his graphic work on amate paper with monumental sculptures carved in volcanic stone.George Darrell (Cortesía Lisson Gallery)

At the center of his new exhibition, Pedro Reyes placed Detente. The sculpture is a large white dove carved from marble; here, the most recognizable symbol of the anti-war movement is also an open hand, the worker’s essential tool. The piece was inspired by the message with which the Carioca playwright Augusto Boal signed his letters: Peace, not passivity. “We lack symbols or ways of talking about the need to curb bellicosity,” explains the Mexican artist. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered a race among European countries to arm themselves, undoing a lot of what the world’s peace organizations had advanced since the 1960s.

Among the exhibited works there is an appreciation for a generation of diplomats who fought to limit the strength of the world powers. In The Treaty, a 6.5-foot-tall sculpture carved from volcanic stone, two hands join in a handshake that closes an agreement. “It represents two peers at the same height; there are no hierarchies,” says the sculptor, who points out that the majority of the 95 countries that have signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons are mostly nations from Scandinavia and the global south such as Latin America and Africa. “We cannot wait for the change to come from the north. The countries of the south have significant influence. We live as hostages of the threat of nuclear winter due to tensions between the United States, Russia and China,” says the creator, who has been involved with this issue for some years.

Pedro Reyes
Pedro Reyes in front of his sculpture ‘Tlatoani.’Luis Pablo Beauregard

The Treaty, a sculpture that he completed this year, is becoming increasingly relevant. At the end of November 2023, the second meeting of the state parties to the treaty will take place before the United Nations Council. Mexico will be the president of the event. According to Reyes, this continues a diplomatic tradition of non-intervention and the fight to stop the proliferation of weapons that experienced its best moment in 1967 in Tlatelolco, Mexico, with the signing of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean. This milestone earned Mexico its only Nobel Peace Prize, which in 1982 went to Alfonso García Robles, a diplomat who had world peace among his obsessions.

The exhibition will be open to the public at the Lisson Gallery from Saturday, June 24, until September, with the most recent pieces that expand the themes that the artist and sculptor has been working on for a long time. It is surprising to learn that this is the first solo exhibition that a Los Angeles gallery devotes to Reyes, a prominent figure in the United States; this is thanks, perhaps, to the explosion of spaces that has occurred in the last year (Lisson itself arrived from London in mid-April), an indicator of the burning temperature of the market in one of the richest areas of the country. Before Reyes was done giving the tour to the press, a collector in sportswear and running shoes had already purchased one of his sculptures.

Reyes’ nostalgia for the past does not end in the Mexico of the Treaty of Tlatelolco; it goes back several centuries. Among the pieces, made in the last three years in his house and studio south of Mexico City, there is also a jadeite Chac Mool figure, a red tezontle rock sculpture and some large paintings made on amate paper, which is made from the pulp of tropical trees, boiled in water with lime and flattened with rocks. Also, a sizeable piece depicting a human skull, one of the objects that, Reyes admits, “obsesses Mexicans.”

One of the corners of the gallery is occupied by the oval face of a pre-Hispanic woman. It is Cihuacóatl, one of the fertility goddesses of the ancient Mexicans. The deity brings to mind one of the controversies that Reyes faced recently. Last fall, Claudia Sheinbaum, the head of government of Mexico City, announced that the artist was working on a piece that would replace an important statue of Christopher Columbus, a character whose historical relevance has shifted in the light of this century. When he revealed the model he was working on, that of a woman with indigenous features, the response was not as expected. The controversy forced the authorities to withdraw the commission from Reyes, who in 2022 unveiled a giant sculpture of a Nahuatl woman along the River Walk of San Antonio. Citlali was also commissioned by the authorities of the Texan city.

Reyes considers his work as a sculptor to be a synthesis of the clash between the great schools of Mexican art. On one side is the nationalist school, headed by artists like Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who were inspired by the labor movements and the Marxist proletariat as a form of resistance to the capitalist drive. Meanwhile, La Ruptura (the Breakaway Generation) modified the technique and the creative influences for decades. With a long list of exponents, among them Vicente Rojo, Rufino Tamayo, Pedro Coronel, Manuel Felguérez, Francisco Toledo and several others, the generation had many disciples.

Reyes stands between those forces. The artist, however, has inherited forms of work that unite the two groups. For example, the stone carving made by human hands in a time in which where most rock sculptures are done with robots. “Every time this happens, six people lose their jobs,” says the artist. His production in his stylized house in Coyoacán, south of Mexico City, has managed to revive a centuries-old trade. Many of the artisans who work with him are relatives of members of the influential School of Sculpture and Direct Carving, established in Mexico in 1927. “It is a viable form of employment. I think that what is done by hand, paradoxically, has a lower risk of disappearing with artificial intelligence than someone who studied computer systems engineering,” he concludes, laughing.

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