Re: Collection invites a range of historians, curators, and artists to respond to the artworks in our collection through approachable texts.
Mexican artist Lourdes Grobet (July 25, 1940–July 15, 2022) is popularly celebrated for her iconic and often intimate photographs of the lives and careers of lucha libre wrestlers. However, the artist’s photo-based practice transcends documentation and lays bare tensions and sympathies simultaneously formal, cultural, and geopolitical. Through side-by-side analyses of works from Grobet’s early series Paisajes Pintados and her later photographs of lucha libre fighters, artist and writer manuel arturo abreu probes underlying messages in Grobet’s work about the symbolic content of the everyday.
The work of Mexican contemporary artist Lourdes Grobet embodies her lifelong effort to transform the camera’s ethnographic gaze into a performative platform driven by the dynamics of community aesthetics. The artist sought to document shifting cultural paradigms and the human contribution to the symbolic realm through a rich aesthetic vocabulary, engaging motion, light, time, and the public.
Over five decades, Grobet developed a series of durational projects which, in the words of curator Víctor Muñoz, used the sensory experience as “a means of indexing degrees of intervention” upon the ever shifting and generative ideational terrain of the cultural, nourished by the popular imagination. 1 Her body of practice does not constrict itself to conventional or fixed signifiers; rather, the artist treats the photograph and installation as spaces of semiotic invention and intervention. Grobet, like Muñoz, was once a member of Mexican Conceptual artist group Proceso Pentágono and, like other members of the collective, sought to create new publics by socializing the camera lens and working in a collaborative post-studio format. 2
Two of Grobet’s central projects include Paisajes pintados and the lucha libre series. As an art student in England in 1977, Grobet found common ground between painting, land art, and photography by altering landscapes with house paint and documenting the result with her camera. Her gestures transform these landscapes into vivid, surreal tableaus that blur the line between reality and fantasy, forming a dreamlike atmosphere where familiar elements of the natural world elaborate their intrinsic qualities in a seemingly narrative or performative way. Grobet returned to this concept in 1982 and 1983, repeating the gesture across her Mexican homeland in Morelos, Michoacán, and Oaxaca while also incorporating new media such as the colorful play of electric lights captured with long exposures and, eventually, digital tools.
In England, Grobet primarily worked with landmarks and landscapes in the southwest of the country such as the Stonehenge monument and the Cornish coastline. Her changes to these landscapes were often as subtle as using mostly muted tones and soft brushstrokes on stones to create a mystical atmosphere. In contrast, when Grobet moved the project to Mexico—where she worked with deserts and mountains, among other types of landscape—she used bolder colors and made more dramatic changes, such as painting plants or the earth itself.
Through her use of color, light, and other media, Grobet creates a narrative within each photograph, drawing the viewer into an exploration of the cultural construction of nature. In the Paisajes, Grobet highlights the ways in which humans shape and are shaped by their environment, introducing the barest elements of architecture in order to talk back to the natural. Grobet’s interventions in paint and light work against ideas of land as inhuman stillness or terra nullius, and, by extension, challenge the traditional conception of landscape photography as passive and static by emphasizing the land’s inherent dimensions of movement and narrative. Yet Grobet’s gesture also clothes the land, as though offering a costume for its ongoing performance. We can imagine her role as performer as being not “on” the land but “with” its many actors and forces. Rather than using color to imbue some sense of elan into a dead landscape, her interventions emphasize the already living and energetic quality of the land embodied in its forms, shapes, and colors, which are archeological records of its ongoing capacity to transform.
In a comment left on an earlier version of this text, my editor Nicole Kaack observed that Grobet’s decision to modify the landscape directly in the Mexican paisajes seems to nullify the distinction between figure and ground, formally echoing the expansive conception of land at play in the work. The artist’s gesture also focalizes the idea that nature is just a series of technical interventions among forms and beings “all the way down.” In one photograph taken in England, the red-painted rocks in the foreground seem as alive as the cows out to pasture in the background. Grobet’s cartographic imagination is a reaction to the depth of the unknowable, registered in the teeming voices of the land itself, which the rational mind seeks to quash, render bloodless. However, there is no static “nature,” only a living archive of interventions: the land already peoples itself with meanings, presences, and fundamental dislocations that resonate with the tenor of the human experience to stymy exceptionalism: we, too, are a part of the land. Grobet’s compositional choices, then, emerge not in a vacuum but in conversation with the visual scope of the landscape.
The next stage in this project involved open-air “painting” with lights and long exposures; in this iteration, neon arabesques whorl around glowing flora which seem alive with yearning. In 1996, Grobet would use digital tools to render the Paisajes pintados, taking the worldbuilding aspect of the concept to a new scale in her depictions of living nature. 3 . Like her analog light-painting photographs, various digital collages further elaborate the surreal compositionality of the landscape. And in a short digital video, Grobet Witch Project (2005), we see a virtual tree writhe and grasp at the viewer like a hungry ghost, cementing the living agency of landscape.
Grobet is best known for her luchador series, for which she photographed men and women fighters in a variety of contexts. The artist was good friends with a number of famous luchadores such as El Santo and Blue Demon and documented them for decades not only in the ring but also at work, at church, and in social and domestic spaces for the series Family Portraits (1980–2002). She sought to document how the survivance 4 of autochthonous perspectives and bodies of tradition involve change—that is to say, to document communities’ agentive, dynamic, and intertextual modality of intervention on the living landscape of myth in order to sustain itself. In the context of the ring, she photographed matches, audiences, and the architecture and infrastructure of the venue. The focus was not simply the athleticism or sociological component of the sport; the luchadores themselves, and their masks in particular, acted as semantic or spiritual interfaces, with the lucha coming to dramatize the ways luchadores lived in two worlds (the mundane and the mythic). In the domestic and social photographs, Grobet shows the luchadores as everyday Mexicans—seated on a couch or resting in bed, taking the Holy Communion in church, applying makeup, caring for a child, licking an ice cream cone—in contrast to their larger-than-life personae in the arena.
For Grobet, the luchador mask connects contemporary Mexico to its pre-Hispanic roots. 5 In her lucha series, the sacredness of performance as embodied in the mask renders what Guyanese writer of quantum fiction Wilson Harris called the power of the “mutual penetration” into other worlds. 6 Living under the predatory coherence and projected origin myths of the occidental regime means that, as Grobet tells Víctor Muñoz in an interview, we live “with one foot in and one foot out. 7 Things are certainly ugly, but there is an obstinate drive to dream that comes from learning to live in this split way. The one foot out is not escape or fantasy but the ongoing presence of elsewhere and elsewise inside the world as it currently exists: reality’s own generative resistance to itself, its subjunctive mask. Her work at the nexus of urban Native and rural Native communities speaks to this—as seen in the lucha series and the Teatro campesino series, which documents Indigenous theater productions.
This may relate to French writer André Breton’s perspective that Mexico is the most surreal country. The surreal or sub-real is not mythic but in fact the underlying fabric of reality (what's under it). The mask allows the wearer to become a vessel for other consciousnesses and times and to express a sense of solidarity with all that lies across the border of individuation. Yet it also allows the articulation of a particular identity. In his essay “Mi Lucha (Libre)” (1940), avant-garde Mexican writer Salvador Novo claims that the luchas are the “artistic sublimation of a real and objective fact whose essence purges itself of reality. 8 Insofar as the luchas are more real than the real, they are art. For Novo, this purged or purgatory state is the essence of art. For Grobet, it might be more accurate to say that the liminal space between reality and fantasy is the cultural or aesthetic, not simply art.
For Grobet, the site of the lucha match is iconically Mexican—she situates the lucha as contemporary urban indigenous expression Esther Gabara, “Fighting It Out: Being ‘Naco’ in the Global ‘Lucha Libre,’” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 26 (2010): 285. and site of the “deep Mexico.” Angélica Abelleyra, “A Life without Masks: An Interview with Lourdes Grobet,” on Lourdes Grobet’s website, 2005. The lucha signifies the clash of contested identities and origin myths comprising the notion of Mexico, which cannot have a singular origin but is instead a fabric of many roots and people. Culture, like the sacred, requires a degree of belief and doubt. It requires active participation. As such, the ring and match also speak to the nature of what makes a space divine or sacred. “Reality” is produced by the clash of cultural mythologies that make their own human construction opaque. That is, they wear masks.
Recintos sagrados (Sacred Enclosures, 1983) tilts the camera’s gaze upwards to the arena’s oculus—the circular opening where the dome’s scaffolding terminates. The venue’s architecture dominates the composition, as if to make visible its role in the spatial and mythic choreography of the lucha, yet the audience seems to be supporting it from below. Echoing the mechanical eye of photography, the oculus gazes down at the ring and the audience, redolent of pagan Greco-Roman sun worship. Flush with the oculus, at the center of the image’s bottom edge a lighting fixture illuminates the ring. Another image from the series documents a potential overlap between the lucha match and the Day of the Dead. The social space of mask and costume is liminal and porous, allowing traffic between the material and immaterial worlds.
Grobet’s photos of painted landscapes and lucha libre wrestlers are linked by their exploration of the performative potential of culture and the body. In the Paisajes pintados, Grobet uses the landscape as a canvas for her own performative intervention, transforming the natural environment and portraying land and myth as living, breathing entities, constantly evolving and reshaping themselves in response to human activity and meaning making. Similarly, in photographs of lucha libre fighters, Grobet captures the performative power of Mexican wrestling, documenting not only the spectacle of the sport but also the cultural and historical context that surrounds it. She and the liminal masked wrestlers collaboratively intervene in and examine the production of reality in a way that echoes the use of color to depict a living landscape in the paisajes. Both bodies of work also highlight the role of community in shaping culture and performance. In her Paisajes pintados, Grobet often collaborated with local communities, inviting them to participate in the act of painting and transforming the landscape. In her photographs of the world of Mexican wrestling, Grobet focuses not only on the performers themselves but also on the audience and the broader social and cultural context in which the sport is situated.
Further, both projects challenge traditional notions of the relation between reality and representation, emphasizing the reality-constructing agency of the latter. In the Paisajes pintados, Grobet alters the natural landscape to create something new and fantastical, while in her photos of wrestlers, her subjects take on personas from larger-than-life to quotidian. These bodies of work invite the viewer to suspend their disbelief and engage with an uncanny world. Grobet’s Paisajes pintados series and her photos of lucha libre wrestlers can be seen as powerful statements about the ways in which culture is a dynamic and ever-changing entity responding to the human body in motion. Grobet reminds us that culture is not a fixed, static entity but rather a living, breathing force that is constantly reshaped by our collective actions and interventions.