Helen Escobedo. At Human Scale

Retrospective of the Mexican artist (1934 - 2010), Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico. In Memoriam.
By Graciela Schmilchuk | Dec 2010

Suddenly a drum stroke, then an echo, then a spark. I live in some sort of perpetual movement, which is uncomfortable sometimes for I don’t produce a continuous work where my steps can be identified. H.E. 1992

Helen Escobedo's life path and career summarize like no other, all investigations and quests of contemporary arts. Restless traveler and informed artist, no trend has escaped from her. She freely took what she found useful from each. In Mexico, she was a pioneer on addressing the environmental destruction in arts, using natural waste materials in her works, as well as in practicing an anti-solemn conceptualism through site-specific ephemeral installations.

She humorously created and played with the impossible, the irrational, the myths, and everyday life things with overwhelming imagination and irreverence to art’s rules. As poets and children do, she played with what usually is contradictory and excluded.

The exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art México, which Helen Escobedo could see realized few months before her passing, proposed a perspective view of some of the processes, utopias, projects, and adventures of her career, pretending to take record of her eye and boldness without fully betraying her poetics.

The curatorial discourse highlighted not only the groups of acclaimed artworks, but also those less well known, the documentation of creative and experimental processes, the "unstable" aspects of Escobedo's work, precisely the ones that have characterized her as the only contemporary artist of her generation estimated by the young creators of the present.

The exhibition was organized around the following themes:

While the Rupture Movement was taking place in Mexico City in 1951, Escobedo was studying at the Royal College of Art in London. There, she learned strong traditional figure drawing and modeling techniques for bronze casting.
At her return, being too young and outdated about the Rupture artists – but sharing their ideas- she would make figurative sculptures for ten years. More than working with volume, she would work with the space that pierces it, the architectonic traces, and the irregular texture on which light plays, the intangible and most expressive of the technique. In this initial and searching stage, between 1955 and 1966, her most remarkable influences were those of Giacometti y Germaine Richier.

Helen would find a reflection of her desires on visual arts integration and on the concept of art as a work and a service to society, including the design potential, in the works of Mathias Goeritz and in Ida Rodríguez Prampolini’s texts. This utopia strengthens during the exalted collectivization, the peer solidarity, and the questioning of institutional policies from her experience as director of the visual arts faculty and founder of the independent classrooms at the UNAM in 1968. She felt creation could be collective.
This is how she experienced the movement and its kickback. Thus, she would make several dynamic walls projects and sculptural settings made of lacquered plywood sheets, some of them made as screen-prints - a multi-reproduction privileged technique- where she embodied her reflections on the rampant urban growth, advertising, architecture, or design.

During the seventies and eighties, a broad sector of artists thought that influencing the urban space perception could contribute to change the quality of life. This international trend conceived the monumental abstraction as its icon, with the intention of adding value to public spaces. Two of the artist’s favorite structures are frames and tubes, upright or lying down. These enabled her to model vacuum more than filled spaces, to get in and out, to play with light and color, and create visually light works.
However, Escobedo was ambivalent while making up sculptures in public spaces; she reproduced her humorous visual reflections on the country’s monuments and her graphic speculations were increasingly focused on the absurdity of imposing permanent works, leading her to a greater dematerialization and to an increasingly conceptual art.

From sculpture to environmental art and from there to architecture represented an expansive movement particular of Escobedo’s boldness and of times when genre and technique boundaries were crumbling. By means of walls, landscapes, doors or windows the in and out ratio is just about flowing. There are geometric and organic, rough and refined elements, intimate and collective ambits, which do not intend to be part of architecture’s history.
Total Environments
Escobedo designed in dialogue with the users, three and two-dimensional doors, corridors, offices and atmospheres (installations), which made the air, light and colors. Evocations of the sea, music, plants, or rhythmic abstractions too introduce a difference in a world of routine.
Familiar Paradise
It is emotional architecture centered in the atmospheres each one needs (made of space, lights and shadows, textures, colors and landscapes). Each shape is treated like a sculpture. A “barefoot” architect, Escobedo exchanges ideas with contractors, masons, and carpenters. The interior is everything.
Conceptual, she addresses everyone without hermeticism, goes beyond the languages of her domain without betraying herself; the other, means us for her, which creates a community in each work. In Mexico, she is considered a pioneer of the creation based on ecological problems, -nonetheless se does not make ecological art, for this pretends to transform the given conditions in a lasting way -, Escobedo just does it for a few weeks, granting the gift of another glance.
Maybe for Escobedo the physical space and the object are not the perfect place, but that where collective memory and experience are built; there is where she aspires to leave the mark of her work, accepting loss and evanescence.


Graciela Schmilchuk

Art historian graduated from the Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina. Researcher at the Centro Nacional de Artes Plásticas (INBA) in Mexico-City since 1985.

Helen Escobedo
A escala humana

29 April - 15 Sept. 2010

Museo de Arte Moderno
Paseo de la Reforma y Gandhi s/n
Bosque de Chapultepec

Research and curatorial concept:
Graciela Schmilchuk

Curatorial coordination:
Iñaki Herranz

Rodrigo Luna

Graphic design:
Vladimir Zambrano

Book on the artist's work:

Helen Escobedo: Pasos en la arena
Por Graciela Schmilchuk
Ed. DGE-Turner, CNCA, UNAM, Madrid-México 2002, 272 pp.

Helen Escobedo, Footsteps In The Sand
Ed. Turner, Madrid-México, 2005, 272 pp.

ISBN (Mexico):
ISBN (Europe):
968- 5011-20-6

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