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Apocalyptic, catastrophic and silent representations in contemporary Mexican painting

Posted on 30 January, 2018

Adriana Zapett, Edwina Moreno y María Eugenia Garmendia
One of the modalities of contemporary Mexican painting seems troubling to us, as it displays the self-destructive potential of human beings both individually and collectively, bearing witness to angst and hopelessness. In images of strange beauty, dealing with cruelty and the tearing apart, the injury or mutilation of the body, or perhaps the crumbling down of an imaginary space represented on canvas, the painter transforms the death drive into figurability. (1)
The fictional and the real in the pictorical representation of the apocalyptic and catastrophic are powerful triggers to generate the tension between the attraction and repulsion that drive the spectator’s emotions. The gaze as scopic drive pores over the devastation, the unformed and abject in the inorganic state and in all the enigmatic aspects that feed the death drive. Paradoxically, we long for existence even though there is in all of us a sickness unto death, as Hegel puts it.
Diverse notions of the end of the world, along with the catastrophist ideas that have accompanied human beings in their historical becoming, reveal the powerful potential for self- destruction tha inhabits us as an unconscious force, uncontainable, unpredictable and overwhelming. We are the outcome of a complex fabric in which the life drive represents gradients that modulate the desire of existence in which each one of us singularizes this
In today’s world, humanity has suffered through several catastrophes of increasing intensity and frequency. Not just natural catastrophes, but antropogenic ones as well: political, social, financial and technological, where the death drive emerges in sudden and violent fashion. Nature has forcefully manifeste itself in hurricanes such as Emily and Wilma (2005) in México, Katrina (2005) and Harvey (2017) in the United States; tidal waves such as the Indonesia tsunami in 2004; earthquakes as in Kashmir, in India and Pakistan (2005), Sichuan, China (2008), Haití (2010), earthquake and tidal waves in Japan (2011), in Mexico City on September 19, 2017, on the same day as the 1985 earthquake; heatwaves in Europe (2003) and Russia (2010), with temperatures above 41° Celsius; floodings in the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas in 2007. These are just a sample of the most devastating natural phenomena of the 21st century, related to global warming, that have cost thousands of lives, provoked diseases, epidemics, fear, insecurity, depression and post-traumatic stress, ravaged family and national patrimonies and economies, disrupting everyday human life and damaging the social fabric. Time blurs them… but not so their traces.

Separate mention must be made of the epidemics and pandemics provoked by humans throughout history. Here, the death drive has fed the psyche of kings, rulers and politicians, who have ordered their scientists the creation of deadly viruses such as anthrax, aids or ebola, in order to exterminate part of the world’s most vulnerable population: Third World populations, as is the case with Africa. They aim at reducing overpopulation, to avoid more poverty and hunger in the near future.The constant scientific research into the manipulation of pathogens implies the possibility of an apocalyptic bacteriological war.
Today, most of the world is ruled by a technoscientific system. An apparent feeling of peace is supported by fragile mechanisms, such as those established in the political world, revealing that just as our planet’s inner magma provokes fractures in the tectonic plates that alter the surface, human destructive impulses, in an iteration of outrageous and cruel acts, give rise to a time of catastrophes.
We are immersed in latent dangers, emanating, as we have stated, from the minds of rulers driven by their powerlust to eliminate their enemies, diregarding the potential annihilation of all or part of their adversary’s nation. Such is the case with US President Trump’s threat to exterminate North Korea if Pyongyang continues to carry out nuclear tests. Concern and tension are justifiably on the rise, since it would be catastrophic for a country to detonate a nuclear weapon in the atmospere to produce an electromagnetic impulse that would shut down all electronic devices and systems, paralizing industries, communications systems and economies. How long would humanity survive without light, fuel, transportation, work, medical care and food?
Pondering human finitude in today’s global technoscientific space makes us question how death is capitalized, perhaps as non-transcendent death. In spite of the prevailing ideas on the destructive implications of technology which generate catastrophes, and that humans are pervaded by disappointment and indiference, leaning towards nihilism, we see that this is not the only way, as thought expands towards other means of survival involving technology in terms of a fusion of the human and the artifact. This is not just a matter of a lack of genuine convictions and especially values; the worldview goes beyond those parameters, and the paradigm change we are witnessing runs very deep.
Faced with all these catastrophic events, it is quite pertinent to reflect upon the apocalyptic or catastrophic painting produced by several artists in Mexico from the late 20th century to this second decade of the third millenium. We are interested in analyzing the work of Mexican creators engaged with the apocalytic as a social phenomenon and those who experience catastrophes in an intimate tone. Due to the state of social decomposition of the capitalist system and a disenchanted view of modernity, art theorists have labelled some of them as “post apocalyptic”, others as “neo-Mexicanists”, and yet others as “hyper realists” because of their high pictorial skills; what unifies them for the purpose of this study is their peculiar worldview, which seems to contemplate “in silence” these catastrophes, seen as unavoidable. Perhaps a methodic study, and their own voices, can shed light on the reasons behind their peculiar angst, reflected in their subjects, finding different artistic courses and forms to face up to it.
Alejandro Montoya (Mexico City, 1959)
Alejandro Montoya’s work lies at the edge of the beautiful and the sinister. It’s disturbing, disquieting, upsetting, and makes us look away hurriedly, because it is pervaded by darkness, the world of death touching us coldly and mercilessly. He represents human remains, with a marked obssession for death and its spoils. His works center on a single object of study: a skull, a skeleton, lifeless bodies, mummies, rats. Large-format drawings, impeccably crafted in black and white, remind us of the ephemeral nature of our own existence. A spark of light, followed by eternal darkness; the spoils of death are the only allegory of his works, at the service of the eschatological subject par excellence.
Estrella Carmona (Veracruz, 1962-Mexico City, 2011)
An expressionist painter who captures the horrors of war in large-format canvases, working in intense sessions of creative fervor. Without preliminary sketches, she gives free rein to the obssession for destruction of war machinery. The second Horseman of the Apocalypse is portrayed over and over, as cannons, tanks that annihilate everything in their path, as threatening instruments that destroy life, hope and the future. Her paintings are full of movement, achieved through bold and energetic perspectives, singular vanishing points, often with a monochrome or very limited palette in order to provide color with shocking force. Her work provides us with a key to apocalyptic war, the last waged by humanity.

Antonio Luquín (Guadalajara, 1959)
Luquín’s work has become the countercurrent of contemporary art. It can signify the complex world in which we live. He is interested in the landscape of solitude, the last day of creation or the last day of civilization. Through his catastrophist urban imagery he interprets the fatigue, the collapse of Western society which annihilates vital space. However, Luquín offers as well a spiritual landscape, an inner search for transcendent forms in the absence of the human image and its finitude. The apocalypse he approaches is very realistic and colorful; these are illuminated visions, landscapes of civilizations that could be our own, with little touches of incongruity that force us to take a second look to analyze his message and his singular pictorial project.

Martha Pacheco (Guadalajara, 1957)
A painter of horror, of the ugy and the abominable made up of corpses, deformed faces, bodies with autopsy marks. She is obssessed with the horrible, the terrible. Her vision diverges from the collective taste for beauty and captures us through the curiosity and the attraction of the abject. We cannot escape these aesthetic experiences that chase us, because there is something in them that our psyche searches after. Could it be the desire to unravel the violent fact of death in order not to be the next victim?

Arturo Rivera (Mexico City, 1945)
Arturo Rivera’s inner world, expressed through a realism in which figuration is a means to capture existential anxiety and pain, is mingled with playful or vital elements that intensify these dualities. His work is cathartic; crude and sometimes gentle, it detonates both life and death elements through his particular way of interpreting darkness by means of color. His ever present gaze is the way in which the artist manifests himself in front of this dehumanizing reality of the conemporary world, immersed in technological alientation, distanced from the realm of the sensible which is the territory of painting. He is fascinated by the aesthetic of horror, but sublimated by his impeccable craft and a sort of obssessive methodic ordering, casting aside those elements that may hinder the reading of pieces that apparently have no connection between them, a kind of log written by a scientist of the absurd, an anatomist interested as well in the structure of insects and other animals appearing side by side with the even-tempered presence, as if they agreed to being minutely observed by the artist-scientist. Rivera expects us to discover the message beyond the subjects and objects he presents aesthetically in his pictorial world.
Gustavo Monroy (Mexico City, 1959)
The painter of Mexico’s everyday, rather than apocalyptic, violence. We might say he is a Mexican costumbrist painter, because violence settled in this country years ago: organized crime violence, narco violence, police violence, and even military violence, are everyday events in Monroy’s eyes. Horrible and chilling, his work doesn’t describe generic human violence, but the violence of the Mexican apocalypse. He often portrays himself as the victim of this violence, which has a definite name: the Corruption of National Politics.

Yishai Jusidman (Mexico City, 1963)
A painter with a solid craft, who likes to work in specific projects confronting and integrating painting and photography. He produces series dealing with the intrinsic degradation of human beings, such as his troubling visions of the insane pretending to be inserted into society, or the horrible architectural scenes of nazi gas chambers in his series about the Holocaust, “Prussian Blue”, a project involving a deep reflection on the terrible human condition; he uses that particular color in large canvases as an enduring trace of the poison used to exterminate millions of Jews in those chambers.
Rafael Cauduro (Mexico City, 1950)
Rafael Cauduro’s pictorial offerings are rich in perfection and technical mastery, with a careful execution to offer double or multiple visions. His textures bring us close to hyper reality, but unlike the artists in that trend, he adds magic to his storytelling through his mastery of time and other dimensions. Several of his works convey an eschatological vision akin to that of apocalyptic painters; this is enhanced in his murals, especially in those he painted at the Supreme Court building in Mexico City.
Lucía Vidales Lojero (Mexico City, 1986)
Her work testifies to avery powerful imagination, engaging with diverse forms of destruction, chaos and violence, which increase in strength through the representation of a perverse and deformed childhood resulting from an extremely unequal and unjust. Her work externalizes the inner tears of both body and mind, as well as the pain of others. It is characterized by a critical, anti-capitalist practice. Her work confronts monster with its own monstrosities, therefore it can be regarded as active political resistance.
Beatriz Zamora (Mexico City, 1935)
The color black permates all of her production, like an obssessive attempt to find the meaning of the life-death binomial. Through it, she pores over her own self, reaching into her deepest core where absolute darkness resides. For her, black is not a synonym of death, but rather of life; it is the color of the cosmos, of the universe, of the silence which is nothing and everything at once. It is like the earth and the uterus that recieve the seed in darkness, to gestate and give life. Life and death, light and shadows, the life drive that implicitly carries with it the death drive. In her works she uses stones such as obsidian, jet, and ancient materials like vegetable charcoal, mineral charcoal, lampblack and silicon carbide.
Arturo Miranda Videgaray (Mexico City, 1963)
He is the painter of ant-violence (as he labels his work), dealing with issues that hurt him, such as the everyday aggression we are all exposed to, which not only provokes muggings, extorsions and kidnappings, but also feeds the unhinging and disgust of people who lash out with insults, abuse, humilliations. He uses large-format canvases, portraying a single figure, or just a few, that are unsettling because they have no face, being covered by gas masks, mutiliated or desfigured, in which man and animal ecome one. Immense figures in an atmospere envelopped in bright colors, drippings slipping over the canvas, piercing skulls, bones, airplanes, visibilizing the violence in which we are immersed. In the words of the art critic Carlos-Blas Galindo, “his works are moving and even aggressive. They are made using expressive resources such as the tragic, the horrific, the sinister, the sarcastic, the dire, the grotesque, and the brutal”. (2)
Alejandro Gómez de Tuddo (Mexico City)
The photographer Alejandro Gómez de Tuddo reflects upon the life-death subject, linking it to the relation that exists between the graveyard and the city. These stories intertwine, as the graveyard holds the grief of the city’s inhabitants who have suffered through political conflicts, wars, hunger, diseases. The whole social fabric can be studied through architecture and funeral monuments (several of which can be regarded as genuine works of art); therefore, the artist visits cemeteries around the world, to capture their image simultaneously: the life of the city, supplemented by the silence of the graveyard.
Finally, we could say that perhaps these artists do not represent the sadistic pleasure, the death drive, the destruction and aggression of a society that seems to be in the throes of a sickness unto death, but rather they explore unvisibilized, unintelligible or hidden territories, where the power of regeneration is detonated in individuals and societies, with the desire to build something new, with a longing for transcendece.
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Los desastres ecológicos, <
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Invaluable guidance provided by Carmen Gómez del Campo, Salón de Usos Múltiples, Cenidiap, June 20, 2017.

[1] Death drive: the painful and destructive dimension of the world of unconscious forces.


[2] El pintor de la “violencia hormiga”, SangrARTE,, . Viewed on November 23, 2017.


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