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As other museums are roiled by the coronavirus pandemic, the relatively stately McNay Art Museum reopened June 24 and has remained open since. Even as its grounds undergo extensive renovation, picnickers could be seen enjoying the outdoor space on a recent afternoon, and new sculptures populate its sculpture garden.
Inside, work by two San Antonio artists, Kelly O’Connor and Ruben Luna, is featured in new exhibitions. The prominence of local artists in its current programming is deliberate, according to Rene Barilleaux, head of curatorial affairs.
“Increasingly, and on a regular basis, the McNay incorporates the work of artists based in our community in exhibition and collection galleries,” he said. While Barilleaux said the museum has consistently collected and shown the work of San Antonio artists, the pandemic has heightened the importance of focusing on the local. “More than ever, at this time connecting to our community is paramount,” he said.
That familial sense is also apparent in the work of both O’Connor and Luna, who draw on family history to inform their current work.
The Darkness and Lightness of Disney
Each year, O’Connor’s family would take a road trip in a conversion van.
“We would drive for days to get to Disney[land],” she said. Spending the year in anticipation of the trip was what influenced her most. She recalls paging through magazines and vacation postcards with her father, Christopher, also a Disney fan, soaking in imagery related to “the happiest place on Earth.”
The whimsical “It’s a Small World” castle that anchors Fantasyland at Disneyland Park figures prominently in O’Connor’s massive, wall-covering collage titled Multifaceted Woman in the McNay entrance lobby. The title refers in part to renowned designer Mary Blair, who created the original castle façade that forms the basic architecture of O’Connor’s vision.
Like Blair’s alternately bright and dark life, with unusual success as an early animator, while enduring an abusive husband and alcoholism, O’Connor’s work contrasts dark and light versions of her childhood memories of Disneyland, fashion magazines, dolls, and fairy tales.
At the lower right of the 16-foot by 40-foot Multifaceted Woman, the familiar figure of Alice from Lewis Carroll’s timeless Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland peers into a cavelike entrance arch hung with sharp, glittery stalactites.
“I think of this as an underground, post-apocalyptic, very much an environment of mostly women inhabiting a void of life,” O’Connor said, pointing out collaged images of various 1950s-era household products such as Joy and Thrill dish soaps, with names portraying homemaking as happiness.
But a can of Krylon spray paint in another antechamber of the cave exposes O’Connor’s wry critique of the shallowness at the heart of product naming, consumerism, and Disney’s brand of magic. Collaged onto the can are Alice’s arms, one depressing the nozzle to spray a fake sunflower labeled “I.”
In that void of life she mentioned, “you don’t see anything real or organic. It’s all super artificial, saccharin sorts of environments. … A lot of the joyful stuff is very empty.”
The Small World castle is itself a mere façade, like a movie set with no building behind it. O’Connor pointed out Disney’s penchant for multicultural caricatures, represented in the various architectural elements such as a Russian onion dome and a cartoonish rendering of the Eiffel Tower.
The idea of the world’s many cultures at peace and in harmony is the potentially good side of Disney, she said, though it has historically reduced nonwhite characters to problematic ethnic stereotypes, and its reductive caricatures and past treatment of women, “girls waiting for Prince Charming to come rescue them,” have harmed female social identity.
“I can go back and forth with Disney. I love Disney,” O’Connor said. “But I also see all these issues, and how it can impact us and shape us and control us. But it’s also something that brings me a lot of happiness.”
The Egg Treatment for Mal Ojo
In an out-of-the-way corner of the museum’s lower level, Ruben Luna offers a look at his family history in three distinctive sculptural portraits.
The portraits are in the form of boxes, opened and set in upright position on three pedestals. One box portrays Luna’s wife’s papo (grandfather), Ike, “a churchgoing, blue collar, construction guy all his life,” Luna said.
A sectioned pool cue, darts, playing cards, and a box of Marlboro cigarettes represent the time Ike spent at the family’s Southside bar The Garden Club, where he tested Luna’s mettle as a potential mate for his granddaughter by challenging him to a game of pool. Luna did not say who won, but he and Victoria have been married since.
Another box portrays Luna’s tío (uncle), Jose Luis Mesta, who won notoriety as a musician and spent a hard life in bars and clubs, attested to by a leatherbound flask, shot glass, and neon cowboy hat all neatly inset into the box’s red flocked interior. An actual cassette tape by Mesta is also in the box, its cover a handsome black and white image of the singer, set next to a comb and a bottle of Tres Flores hair tonic. His music issues from an old Craig cassette player underneath the neon hat.
The third box is of Luna’s abuelita, Guadalupe Rodriguez, distinguished in his memory by her folk medicine practices learned in her home pueblo in Durango, Mexico.
Held in the box by small leather belts are a broom, which his abuelita used as her primary tool for cleansings, along with a jar of Vicks VapoRub for chest ailments, salt to chase away a susto (fright), a can of 7-Up soda for stomachaches, and an egg with a delicate photo transfer of Rodriguez’s face on its shell. The egg treatment was to ward off the effects of mal ojo (evil eye), waved over the entire body, secreted under the bed for a night, then cracked and cooked in the morning, and ultimately discarded to reverse the curse.
It was only when others reacted to this artwork that Luna realized how common such practices were among people of Mexican heritage. “Different families have different techniques on how they did it,” he learned, but all used similar traditions.
Each of the portrayed relatives is deceased, making the boxes homages to their memory. That such folk traditions tend to fade in practice and memory with each subsequent generation is a reality Luna accepts, though his kids have become curious about their grandmother’s cooking and have asked for her recipes.
Asked how his abuelita might have approached the coronavirus, Luna said “I don’t know how she would remedy that,” but “it’s funny because on Instagram, you see some of these same objects and it’s [called] ‘the coronavirus first aid kit,’” some even including the same egg remedy and can of 7-Up.
Luna’s exhibition is part of the ongoing McNay series Artists Looking at Art, which for the past year has featured several of the museum’s own employees who are also artists. Luna is the museum’s art installation manager, and brings his experience with woodworking and delicate art handling to bear on his work.
Luna’s sculptures will remain on view through January 3, and O’Connor’s lobby installation will be up through January 17.
The McNay is observing strict pandemic protocols, including contactless online ticketing, temperature checks at the door, a face covering requirement, Plexiglas barriers at the front desk, limited capacity, and multiple hand sanitizer stations.