Tale of Two Cities - Steve deFrank

What were you doing in Mexico City? 

I was on a Fulbright grant to Mexico City for almost a year, and I was studying Lucha libre, Mexican wrestling. In essence, the government paid for me to go to Mexico City and watch men fight in their underwear. I was basically the luckiest man alive.

My proposal for the Fulbright was the art of Lucha libre and freestyle painting in the twenty first century. Lucha libre is a metaphor for painting and is a metaphor for my state of being as a painter. It is a struggle between good and evil, but I also think that Lucha libre is an illusion—is it real or is it fake? They use allegory, farce, and make use of political, sexual, and religious imagery, just like what I do as a painter. I went to Mexico City and I immersed myself in the world of Lucha libre. I was even trained as a luchador. Luchadors are tough men yet they have the emotional state of thirteen-year-old boys. They have blobby muscular bodies, and fight flesh against flesh. Lucha libre is truly a Mexican art form.

What are the main differences between New York and Mexico City?

What do you do when you are the foreigner in Mexico who falls in love with all things Mexican? I am in it, and I am in it deep. I am that foreigner that is stuck in the middle. New York and Mexico: it is a conflict—who am I, what am I?

New York is a big city. It is expensive, hard to live in, a constant struggle, and you are always working your butt off. In Mexico City, it is much smaller and your opportunities are bigger, believe it or not. New York has opportunities too, but you have to search extremely hard for them.

What was fascinating about Mexico City was that I would gather information about gallery openings not via the Internet but by word of mouth. It would be spread in that manner, which is indicative of a strong art community. After every opening, you would go to a cantina. The cantina is where soccer matches are on television, drinks are being served and cards or dominos are being played. There, in walks the art world. Everybody—the curators, directors, and artists—sits at a big table, side by side, drinking and talking. At the Whitney Museum, I don’t think I was even invited to the after party! In contrast to New York, Mexico City encourages camaraderie within the art world.

In Mexico City, we had one art fair for the entire city. The art community wanted to start another art fair, and so I asked Brett Schultz, co-founder of the Yautepec Gallery, I asked if Fulbright scholars could be included in the art fair. I do not think I would have taken that initiative with the Armory Show in New York. In the New York art world where everything is big, I do not have that personal interaction and communal support that I had while in Mexico City. After having we applied and successfully registered for the art fair, we went to the Fulbright and asked if there was a way they could sponsor the booth. It took some negotiating but the state department agreed to cover the costs of opening a booth. This is the big difference—at the Armory, a booth the size I had at the Material art fair, would cost twenty thousand dollars. In Mexico City, it cost us eighteen hundred dollars. So, you can understand the opportunities were a little better and the exposure was astounding because an international audience came running down to Mexico City. I had to go to Mexico to get a New York art gallery to look at me! It is bizarre but that’s Mexico City for you, it is a great community.

What are some themes that your work explores?

This is a luchador, Super Porky. He weighs three hundred and fifty pounds. I actually got to meet Super Porky. In this photo, you can see that he is wearing beautiful tights and I wanted to create something inspired by them. I have never met men that groom themselves as much as luchadors do before getting on stage. They do their hair, make up, put on their tights, and apply their masks, yet they are the most macho people that I have ever met. However, they are also feminine in the strangest way. In my work, I wanted to take advantage of that masculine-feminine binary. For example in my piece “Super Porque” I found panty hose and made it hairy.

Tell us about your studio and work environment in Mexico City.

Emerging, mid-career to established artists could be found working in the same building, something you hardly ever find in New York. Rent is cheap. The Fulbright grant, in addition to sabbatical money awarded to me by the SVA, gave me freedom that I had never experienced before. I was able to take the time to do all these different things that I do not know if I could have done here in New York City. In the city, I teach, I have a husband, I have a studio, and I am constantly juggling. In Mexico City, the pace is different, it is much slower. I am going to be kicked out of my studio in Bushwick because the rent is too high, where do us artists have to go? Where do we move? It is different. Here is a fun fact: as an artist in Mexico City, I can pay taxes with my art. That is the culture--I am valued as an artist, and the government will accept my artwork as a form of tax. They take your paintings and sculptures and show them at regional museums. The government is very supportive of artists in a completely different way. When you get a grant, it is not just for three years and it is at a pretty good livable wage. You get to be part of shows, you get exposure, and there is a support system there that is extremely hard to come by. In New York, artists are all fighting for a tiny piece of the same pie.

Can there be more than one art world?

One of my students very astutely said to me: “what is the point, what are you talking about?” My work is about the different art worlds that exist. I have been based in New York City for almost thirty years and it has made me New York-centric; I used to think that New York was the only place you could be an artist. When I went to Mexico City, it made me realize that there are alternate art worlds that are highly functional, rich, fulfilling, and not New York-centric. There are art worlds all over the place! I love New York and I will always live here, but I also love Mexico City. The art world community is getting smaller, yet its geographical reach is growing bigger. Personally, I hope to find a purpose to visit Mexico City every year. That is my dream.