As I stepped into the Silk Road Art Gallery on Audubon Street, I crossed into a different world from my own reality and into another. At first I felt perplexed. I was the only visitor in the small art gallery. The owners, two Chinese women and a man, welcomed me and pointed me to “Of Another,” an exhibition about border crossings by Mauricio Cortes Ortega ART ’16.
The Silk Road Gallery on Audubon is only one room, but it’s a large one. The light blue carpeting, light gray walls and neutral, comfortable furnishings starkly contrast Cortes’ colorful, striking paintings on the wall. His work takes up about half the gallery, and a set of paintings and ceramics by Kiara Matos occupies the other half. “Of Another” is divided into three sections: large oil paintings and encaustics on panel near the window onto Audubon, four large oil paintings in the center of the gallery and etchings on paper in the far back of the room.
Cortes’ exhibition features these 19 pieces, all of which speak to the migrant experience. The artist was born in northern Mexico and moved at age nine to the United States. Cortes’ work is striking — I was drawn to it immediately. Many of his large oil paintings feel almost three-dimensional. The paint is thick and layered, almost like frosting, and some of it even looks as if it were woven. I couldn’t figure out what it meant or what it was, though — besides visually stimulating and aesthetically intriguing. The first piece I saw was called “Striped Fence Hill With Dirt.” When I approached it again with the title in mind, a fence suddenly emerged before me, and I saw boundaries offset by hopeful, warm hues.
His titles continued to confound and illuminate at the same time: “Martian Foliage.” “Alien Horizon.” “Alien Landscape Round Horizon.” “Alien Dawn Blue.” “Passages.”
Ultimately, his titles helped clarify that these moments of crossing were also moments of alienation. As I read in the exhibition handout, Cortes explores and questions the crucial moment of crossing between what came before and what is to come, both literally and metaphorically. He subtly tells an immigrant narrative with pieces like “Passage,” four 8-by-8-inch paintings that look like doorways with thick dabs of paint, a sort of pointillism reimagined. In them, the same passage is depicted in four different color palettes, a technique that speaks simply about the varying yet universal experiences of migration and passage — and also perhaps anonymity.
Cortes’ strength is unquestionably the technique in his oil paintings. He uses cake-decorating tools, which pays homage to traditional Mexican textiles. With this method, Cortes addresses colonialism and conquest in addition to border crossing. There’s something particularly striking about using cake-decorating tools, and that kept resonating with me. These tools, which I’ve only seen on bad reality television shows about cake-baking, can illuminate a reality so distinct from luxury pastries.
Examining Cortes’ etchings further elucidated one of his key strengths: perspective. The three-dimensional nature of the oil paint made looking at those paintings an immersive experience, while the etchings invited the viewer inward, into an ambiguous, vacuous space. His etchings of “Headdress” and “Faceless #20” looked alarmingly alike, powerfully implying the void implicit in migration and changing location. Even without the dimensions of oil paint, the pieces still have an impressive texture.
Throughout the exhibition, Cortes draws attention to the dual senses of loss and gain in the process of migration. In this stunning, immersive work, he also describes and explores the immigrant condition and the universal condition of experiencing the unknown.
I left the Silk Road Art Gallery with questions about crossing, transience and belonging. At the end of my visit, I felt I too had crossed a border — I had entered a multicultural art gallery which before I had only seen in passing. I walked back down Whitney Avenue and realized that Cortes and the Silk Road Art Gallery successfully created a space in which everyone could acknowledge the complexities of migration, and that I had my very own moment of crossings.