Framed: Tijuana Painter Hugo Crosthwaite Imagines a Sci-fi Future for Mexican Youth

“Tijuana Makes Me Happy” celebrates the exploding art scene just south of the border

In the small gallery space on the ground floor of the Mexican Consulate, the works of Tijuana’s  future art stars line the walls. The MacArthur Park-adjacent building is home to Tijuana Makes Me Happy, a showcase of works by artists from the border city.

Tijuana has experienced a radical transformation in the last few years. A reduction in violence and a growing middle class have fostered the explosion of the local art scene, and the work it has produced is some of the most exciting in North America. Former tourist-trap stalls around Pasaje Rodriguez are being converted into gallery spaces like 206 Arte Contemporaneo, Nodo Galeria, and Espacio Freelance. It’s a quantum leap for the Mexican government to acknowledge the progress with an art show in Los Angeles that’s open to the public.

Tijuana Makes Me Happy includes a video by Pepe Mogt (an electronic musician who works with Baja music ensemble Nortec Collective), Pablo’s Llano’s golden happy meal sculpture and collage of fast food wrappers, and Fritz Torres’ animations. Among the many works, one stands out: Robotlicue, a large piece created by Hugo Crosthwaite, whose art was featured in the Orange County Museum of Art’s California-Pacific Triennial in 2013.

Robotlicue depicts a mashup of Robby the Robot from the cult sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet and Coatlicue, the Aztec mother of gods who birthed the sun, the moon, the stars, and war god Huitzilopochtli. Around the black-and-white graphite and painted portrait–a style that looks part Xerox-punk flyer and part El Greco–children climb on the robot, wearing jet packs and Jetsons-style astronaut helmets. 

At last week’s opening, Crosthwaite humbly mentioned that the piece was just about kids’ imaginations, but it’s more complicated than his description suggests. Robotlicue is imbued with images and symbols that carry connotations far outside the fun-filled scene.

Like the facsimiles of gargantuan Olmec stone heads and the concrete and plaster Aztec calendars that line La Revu–Avenida Revolución, the nearly empty tourist strip cluttered with bored salespeople and spray-painted donkeys–Crosthwaite’s robot-god mashup reflects the superimposed cultures of Mexico. Crosthwaite is familiar with kitschy representations of indigenous culture; his family ran a shop in his hometown, the beach haven of Rosarito. Growing up in the tourist town, he was almost as familiar with culture of America as he was with that of Mexico. In Robotlicue, Crosthwaite addresses this particular brand of code-switching, the ability to move between identities at any given moment.

His work investigates how a post-colonial country interfaces with modern movies and explores the idae that behind these cinematic myths lies a much older shadow. In Crosthwaite’s work, Coatlicue is the core inside of Robby the Robot, suggesting an ancient imagination lies at the heart of every sci-fi fantasy. Tijuana’s resurrection poises the city on the edge of a promising future, and Crosthwaite’s work offers a bold vision of that new world.

Tijuana Makes Me Happy is open to the public until January 15. 2401 W. 6th Street, Los Angeles.