Visiting Orozco

ornate ceiling with Orozco murals

After checking in at the Hotel Morales we were shown to our room. After getting thorough instructions on how the room worked, we splashed our faces and went back downstairs for breakfast.

Breakfast was a buffet with trays of fruit, potatoes, pintos, sausages, and more. A young man stood behind a large grill making eggs on demand. I was too tired to negotiate eggs in Español so I went for a giant plate of beans and cheese empanada with a giant cup of café de olla. Café de olla is strong, black coffee, flavored with cinnamon and other spcies, then sweetened with Mexican brown sugar. It’s rich and sweet and almost too much.

We returned to our room, fat and happy. We figured out how the electronic safe worked. My wife napped, I wrote for a bit then showered. After napping and showering we felt revived and ready to go do some site-seeing.

I try to dress well when I travel. It’s bad enough to deal with a tourist, even worse if they’re shabby. I wore a light blue linen shirt, artfully distressed skinny jeans, and brown leather brogues. I checked myself in the full-length mirror in the alcove by the door saw my grandfather’s ghost looking back at me. I’ve lost some weight, wearing my hair buzzed, looking lanky again, and the family resemblance hit me like a brick.

We hung a right out of the hotel, headed toward the cathedral. A small coffee shop was giving away samples of carrot cake. We got coffees and split a piece. Sweet with carrot-y carrots and cream cheese frosting. We continued towards the plaza, then spontaneously hung a left and wove through early morning street vendor crowds.

Spiderman dolls for sale

We found ourselves on a street occupied entirely by shops selling wedding dresses, quinceanera dresses, and communion dresses. Moms and daughters wandered about as shopkeepers perched on stools in doorways watching expectantly. Around another corner, we found a street full of music shops and statues honoring mariachis. A 7-year old hustled us for spare change.

el mariachi

A hat for pale gringos

I bought myself a ridiculous hat for the sun (it’s a tradition) and we stepped into an enormous jewelry market. Armed guards flanked the doorways, and countless vendors of gold, silver, and precious stones fill the building. We left with my wife’s new treasures, and spilled out into the plaza.

Plaza flanked by giant jewelry stores

Our goal this morning is the Museo Cabañas . I want to see the Orozco murals.

Museo Cabañas

The museum sits at the back of a large plaza, a trio of strange surrealist bronzes to one side. It’s a bright, clear day and visitors are using the museum as a selfie backdrop. We stand in line to buy tickets behind a small crew of beautiful, trendy young people dressed smartly and looking worldly.

Orozco's "the Wheel"

The murals are frescos. This is a fact which I knew, intellectually, but I hadn’t really deeply considered. Orozco’s murals are expressive, with big, bold brush marks. You could easily assume they were giant oil paintings, like Picasso’s Guernica. But, no, they are quick drying pigment embedded into plaster.

Frescos are generally quite precise. The medium is unforgiving. The plaster and the pigment cure quickly, so the artist has to work fast. There is one chance to do it right. If there’s an error, the plaster must be scraped off the wall to start over. Because of this, frescos tend to take on a monumental quality with solid figures, strong lines, and high contrast.

Orozco’s frescos have an immediacy to them. They are enormous and close enough to the floor in places that you can walk up and put your nose on one (don’t do that). And what you see is are large, big, expressive brush marks, embedded into the plaster. There are no visible seams. I’ve always found these murals to be moving and beautiful, but I hadn’t realized their technical mastery before.

As we sat with the murals, a tour guide shuffled people around the space and surrounded us. We snuck to the other side of the hall to find empty benches. We sat beneath the murals for about half an hour, scooting out of the way whenever a tour guide found us.

We left the hall to wander about the museum and stumbled into a small gallery of Orozco paintings. Small is a relative term. These paintings are around 4’ x 6’ though their dimensions vary. This series, Los Teules, (the gods, an old indigenous word) are painted on masonite panels with proxylin (or nitrocellulose) along with more traditional materials. Proxylin is used to create lacquers for furniture finishing and other uses. I immediately thought of Pollock and other American modernists and their use of industrial paint.

Los Tueles

Looking closely, I notice these paintings are executed on the back of the masonite. Masonite (you can find it at your local Home Depot), is made by blasting wood fibers at a screen, then pressing the fibers flat with heat. The “front” of masonite is quite smooth, even shiny. The back takes on a waffle-texture from the screen. The edges of these paintings are painted more thinly, revealing the waffle texture underneath. If the front of these paintings is on the back of the masonite, is there a hidden painting on the back-front?

These paintings feature large mask like faces and abstract figure. X-ray photographs are placed along side the paintings to illustrate how the layers of proxylin lacquer create luminosity in the painted surface. Most of the explanatory wall-text is in Spanish, but I’m getting the gist: Orozco was an innovator throughout his career. These late paintings are reminiscent of De Kooning and Picasso and his willingness to experiment with new materials places him squarely in the modernist tradition.

The proxylin lacquer may have been a poor choice. The surfaces of these 77 year old paintings are cracked far worse than any renaissance oil painting. One day a large paint flake will peel itself free and drift to the ground and these paintings will have to go and live in a windowless, dark vault for the rest of history.

Cracked surface of a painting

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