Einar and Jamex de la Torre
Einar and Jamex de la Torre, Fall 2004 Resident Fellows at the Creative Glass Center of America, are typical of some very successful artists today. They are cosmopolitan, articulate, and highly skilled. They work at a furious pace in locations around the world, including their studios in Ensenada, Mexico and San Diego: doing installations, demonstrations, public and individual pieces. A residency at CGCA permits the two a period for creative reflection which Jamex, the elder brother, notes is a first in their career. Here at Wheaton Village, they have a unique opportunity to experiment and refine techniques without the pressure of “way too many engagements.” However, anyone who observes them rapidly assembling substantial multi-part sculptures on the hot shop floor while accommodating a television interviewer and other visitors who want personal contact, recognizes the unmistakable fizzing champagne of celebrity. Such carnivalesque media multi-tasking is a reflection of the de la Torre’s own fantastical polycultural work. Though born in Mexico, they spent much of their early lives at school in the US. They were raised Catholic, but artists who make a sculptures like Los Testiculos de Dios and a worm-eaten satirical image of the Pope have clearly fallen away from the faith.
Jamex: “We went to college (California State University) back in the late ‘70’s, early ‘80’s. Art tended to be minimalist. It came to us that we were ‘Ultra-Baroque.’” This was the name they gave to an early show which traveled widely and helped to establish their reputations. At the time, their style was often understood as sophisticatedly folkloric, linked to Mesoamerican and Mestizo folk culture. It is, but the de la Torre’s critique of contemporary consumerism has become increasingly acknowledged by critics and strongly stated in their work. In an artists’ statement these brothers, who describe themselves as Mexican-American, though their parents are both Danish-Americans born in Mexico, admit to feeling a slight uneasiness about treating “the absurd pageantry of Catholicism and machismo” of Mexico and the “pornographic materialism [and] lingering Puritanism” of North America with “a certain irreverence,” though they spiritedly defend their irreverence as “a tool for reinvention.”
The polycultural sensibility of the de la Torres is shared by many artists today. They know almost too much. The conviction that there is one superior and proper mode of life is difficult to maintain in the face of one’s knowledge and experience of diverse functional societies, each with positive features and drawbacks.
Sometimes it is said that to know all is to forgive all. However, to know all is also to be driven from the paradise of certainty, of belonging. As an individual, a cosmopolitan artist may be quite sure who he or she is, but art-making tends to arise from a cultural center, a multi-faceted belief system which often includes religion. Are those who have experienced more doomed to the limbo of perpetual irony? There are more such individuals every day, especially in the internationalized world of glass. What remains valid for such artists?
Certainly, as the de la Torres will be the first to tell you, irony has its uses. In addition, there are constant anchoring features in an artist’s world. First, of course, there is technique. The mastery of technique is additive. Unlike religions, techniques do not cancel one another out.
De la Torre glass is like fusion cuisine: The ingredients are unexpected, a little off-center but surprisingly tasty, and most artfully garnished. It is pretty amazing to watch them fashion a flowered skull, a Day of the Dead sugar treat in hot glass, adding color to different elements and applying it hot to a large cross. Jamex points out that they do not use hot colored glass. “We always take color from the marver [by rolling the glass in frit] to be as direct and fresh as possible.” In exhibitions, crosses and images of vulvas are equally lavished with decorations of flowers and glittery accents.
The accretion of polymorpous and polycultural “Bit work,” applied cast or lamp-worked elements to hot blown glass: “That’s definitely our specialty,” says Jamex. He studied lamp working at CSU, concentrating on the figure executed in clear glass. About three years later, Einar came along and developed an interest in blown glass.
“There’s a strange reverence for the material. It’s eye-candy no doubt about that,” Einar acknowledges. But the ingredients on the de la Torre bill of fare don’t end with glass; video, assemblage and other sources are blended in. Many ambitious pieces are installations. Even the glass doesn’t necessarily end with objects made by the two brothers. At CGCA, they incorporated tchotchkes purchased at the local dollar store: glass corn, celery, and pineapples.
Beauty can mitigate the harshness of irony, but postmodern art, with its intellectual, anti-retinal bias, is somewhat ambivalent about beauty. But like sex, beauty will never go out of style, though ideas about what is most pleasing vary.
Jamex: “A lot of times we play with what’s ‘low class’ and try to make it elegant, We try to capture [the viewer] with the beauty of the material.”
Einar: “Art is elitist almost by nature. We have a real issue with taste. It’s a filter that’s more about class than anything else.” Einar believes that ugliness and beauty form a kind of circle. “Beauty goes so far it becomes ugly. There’s a sublime moment that things can start reaching around and touching the opposite pole.”
Irony can support or attack belief. The use of a symbol does not commit one to a belief in that symbol-system. More interesting, the ironic use of a symbol does not necessarily commit one to non-belief. This is evident in Andres Serrano’s notorious photograph Piss Christ. One interpretation of the photograph of a dramatically lit but cheap crucifix submerged in urine is that Serrano is reminding us that even the most debased objects may promote deep religious feelings.
Einar recalls their mother’s fondness for puns as a likely source for the brothers’ own interest in multiple layers of understanding. He recognizes that some people may get only one layer of the intended meaning. “Hopefully there’s more to it than one-liners.”
The de la Torres joke about “Waztecos, white Aztecs” from imaginary “Wazteco,” a region near Monterrey, who are infatuated with pre-Colombian culture and imagine they understand it.
“We’re gonna open a casino,” Einar laughs. “We’ll give you the money but we’ll take the human heart.” Ruby red hearts with applied blood vessels frequently figure in de la Torre work. The imagery has so many levels: human sacrifice in Christianity as well as the Aztec world or, as Einar suggests with the most conviction, “the classist sacrifice of the poor by the rich.” He reflects wryly on his own position as a working artist, perhaps dubious about satirizing the hand that feeds: “People with money buy your work.” Jamex is not concerned: “The irony is on them.”