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arts

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Latin American Art  
 
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Zenil uses himself in his art because, as a gay man in Mexico, he feels marginalized and, therefore, experiences a great sense of solitude. Through self-analysis in his work, he desires to accept fully himself and his lifestyle.

He sees art as a way to purge his mind of some of the pressures he felt growing up gay in a small Mexican town and, later, living in the relatively conservative society of the Mexican capital, where he never feels truly at ease with most of the people around him. He hopes his artwork effects communication between himself and other members of society.

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Zenil's works discourage passive viewer interaction. Through painted images of himself, the artist fixes his gaze on those who attempt to penetrate his world; indeed, he seems to challenge and goad the viewer. To underscore the specificity that the artist wishes to convey, he often inscribes the scenario represented in his works with his own handwriting. Overall, Zenil uses his art to remind viewers that he--no matter his ethnicity or sexual preference--is human just like them.

The mixed media work Esperar la hora que cambiará nuestra costumbre ne es fácil (Waiting for the Time When Our Customs Change Is Not Easy, 1984) functions as a social commentary on Zenil's status as a gay man living in Mexico. The artist sits nude on a chair in a protective pose: he pulls his knees to his chest and crosses his arms over them.

Although he tries to safeguard himself, he is nevertheless vulnerable; his flaccid penis is visible between his ankles. The artist literally imprisons this picture of himself; knotted twine attached to the surrounding matte crisscrosses the image many times.

Two other mixed media works from the 1980s directly address the oppression of gay men. Dos Personajes (Two Persons, 1984) shows Zenil and his long-time companion Gerardo Vilchis from the waist up dressed in suits. Rope tightly binds each of their bodies. Two strips of pink cloth, which match the men's ties, cover Vilchis' eyes and Zenil's mouth. Suicides (1987) again represents Zenil and Vilchis wearing suits. This time, a double noose is wrapped around their necks.

Zenil also depicts Vilchis in Tengo una muñeca (I Have a Doll, 1979). Vilchis is nude except for the woven rebozo (a shawl commonly worn by Latin American women) draped over his shoulders. He sits on a chair cradling a doll in his lap. The work's title refers to the doll, the sitter's penis, and the relationship between artist and sitter. Because in Mexico a "real" man must be dominant and macho, Zenil blatantly flouts national gender norms by eroticizing the penis.

Zenil has long been an ardent supporter of gay rights in Mexico. He plays a prominent role in the Círculo Cultural Gay, an organization active since the early 1980s. Although there are few direct references to the wider issue of lesbian and gay rights in Zenil's art, an exception is En el Zócalo frente al Palacio Nacional (In the Zócalo in Front of the National Palace, 1992). In this work, the artist represents himself many times holding various banners with slogans such as "Respect for Human Rights," "Peace," and "Love."

Religious subject matter often appears in Zenil's art. The Virgin of Guadalupe maintains pride of place in the artist's symbolic vocabulary. She often appears above Zenil and Vilchis, blessing their union or casting a protective aura over them. In Virgen de Guadalupe (Virgin of Guadalupe, 1984), for example, an apparition of the Virgin appears above the two men, who are in bed.

Julio Galán

Although he emerged from a more privileged background than that of Zenil, Julio Galán (b. 1959) has also made a mark among contemporary Mexican artists. He painted himself semi-naked, as a young boy, as a witchdoctor, or with Aztec headdresses, adding a Baroque kitsch tone that has become his trademark. This style is melodramatic and might be called high camp.

Galán shares with many Mexican artists an obsession with self-portraits, ambivalence, and doubling. His personal symbolism, which mixes religious elements with cinematic ones, is frequently cryptic, much like that of Kahlo. He is known especially for his critiques of the social construction of gender in such works as Donde ya no hay sexo (1985), which depicts the artist as having an ambiguous sexuality, and Niños con muchos huevos (1988), which shows two boys kissing.

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