Magical Mexico: Meet the New Surrealists Redefining Psychedelia

Salvador Herrera, Insertion of Imagination, 2019. Collage. Detail.

Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.
Surrealism still thrives in Mexico, rooted in a rich cultural tapestry and invigorated by new ideas about psychedelia

Surrealism still thrives in Mexico, rooted in a rich cultural tapestry and invigorated by new ideas about psychedelia.

Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

Pedro Castro, Pac Man Bros y El Cristo interior en las aventuras del niño Jesús, 2018. Collage. 66.92 x 53.14 in (170 x 135 cm).

“Since I was a child, I grew up listening to stories of the paranormal, I always felt an attraction to those themes, regardless of whether it exists or not.”

Pedro Castro

When a group of European Surrealists immigrated to Mexico in the late 1930s to escape World War II, they found a culture in which their art would flourish. French poet and critic Andre Breton drafted the Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924. After visiting Mexico in 1938, he called it the most surreal country in the world. Salvador Dalí declared, “There is no way I’m going back to Mexico. I can’t stand to be in a country that is more Surrealist than my paintings.” Though Breton included Mexico’s own Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera in the fourth International Surrealist Exhibition of 1940's Mexico City, Kahlo never embraced the movement.

Among those immigrants to Mexico were three artists eventually nicknamed "The Three Witches." They were Leonora Carrington of England, Remedios Varo from Spain, and Hungarian-born photographer Kati Horna. While Carrington and Varo both rejected the Surrealist label, they shared an interest in mysticism and magic, amply provided by Mexican culture.

Liminal spaces and practices still exist. Using techniques including herbalism, divination, and spiritual cleansing, traditional curanderismo healers treat ailments including soul loss and the evil eye. A brujo can inflict a curse, while shape-shifting sorcerers called nahualli take animal forms.

Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

Pedro Castro, Los espíritus platican en los sueños o ¿Diálogo personal?, 2017. Collage. 93.30 x 24.80 in (23.7 x 63 cm).

In 1936, artist Pedro Linares became ill. While unconscious, he experienced a vision of fierce hybrid animals forming from the entire landscape. The beasts shouted “Alebrijes!” After he recovered, Linares began making the papier-mâché creatures that are now popular all over Mexico.

“Surrealism and psychedelia [are] a way of life here,” says music producer and gallerist Ruth Fehilly. Like Carrington, Fehilly was born in the UK, but made Mexico her home after falling in love—first with the country, then with artist Salvador Herrera. The couple opened The Outsiders Gallery in Centro, Queretaro last November, using the time afforded them by the pandemic to build their business.

Fehilly and Herrera want to expand the perception of Surrealism as a way of seeing life. While the word “surreal” has come to mean the absurd, there is a strong feeling in Mexico that life is surreal and you make Surrealist art about it. “Cosmic happenings are a sort of fact here,” explains Fehilly. Synchronicities and rituals are a part of everyday life. Fehilly has observed a strong belief among many artists who talk about dimensions and feel a sense of going between different portals. Art is not just “the whim of the artist… things are supposed to come into being through the art because they already exist."

Adrián Adrián Bastarrachea, Sueño asintomático II, 2020. Oil and charcoal on canvas. 82.67 x 48.21 in (210 x 125 cm).
Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

Adrián Bastarrachea, Sueño asintomático II, 2020. Oil and charcoal on canvas. 82.67 x 48.21 in (210 x 125 cm).

Adrián Bastarrachea
Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

(left) Adrián Bastarrachea, Venus, 2021. Ink on paper. 22.04 x 29.92 in (56 x 76 cm).

(right) Adrián Bastarrachea, Crimen B. (Triptych: Crimen y castigo), 2019. Ink on paper. 11.69 x 16.53in. (29.7 x 42cm).

Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.
Cheke

Cheke, Desert Offering, 2018. Mixed media on paper. 47.24 x 47.24 in (120 x 120 cm).

Cheke
Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

Cheke, Today's empires tomorrow ashes, 2018. Collage on moleskine. 15.74 x 12.99 in (40 x 33 cm).

Dana Barbecho
Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

(left) Dana Barbecho, Dolorosa Diabla, 2020. Graphite on paper. 14.37 x 11.41 in (36.5 x 29 cm).

(right) Dana Barbecho, Dolorosa Vampiresa, 2020. Graphite on paper. 14.37 x 11.81 in (36.5 x 30 cm).

Luisa Golden
Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

(left) Luisa Golden, Redefined by Internet, 2018. Digital 3D Sculpture. 3000 x 3936 px.

(right) Luisa Golden, Cupido y Psique Aesthetic Glitch, 2019. Digital 3D Sculpture. 4724 x 7086 px.

Pedro Castro
Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

Pedro Castro, Espiritualidad Chatarra o Dieta Emocional, 2017. Collage. 74.40 x 93.30 in (189 x 237 cm).

Pedro Castro
Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

Pedro Castro, La enfermedad del espíritu sale de la boca y nace en el corazón o Palabras podridas, 2017. Collage. 63.38 x 60.23 in (161 x 153 cm).

Salvador Herrera
Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

Salvador Herrera, Insertion of Imagination, 2019. Collage. 78.74 x 78.74 in (200 x 200 cm).

Salvador Herrera
Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

(left)Salvador Herrera, Phantasmata Divinolinarium, 2017. Mixed media on wood. 35.43 x 19.68 x 27.55 in (90 x 50 x 70 cm).

(right) Salvador Herrera, Summoning I, 2019. Mixed media on paper. 22.44 x 29.52 in (57 x 75 cm).

Tania Quezada
Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

Tania Quezada, La Casta Impasible, 2016. Acrylic on wood. 19.68 x 27.55 in (50 x 70 cm).

Tania Quezada
Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

Tania Quezada, El Camino al país del Olvido, 2020. Acrylic on wood. 15.74 x 19.68 in (40 x 50 cm).

The couple also want to change the prevailing definition of psychedelic art. “Psychedelic,” derived from two Greek words, translates to “mind manifesting.” The design style has long been associated with the hallucinogenic drug culture of the late 1960s and early 70s.

Experiences with the legal hallucinogen Salvia Divinorum still inspires Herrera to depict infinite geometric patterns in his work. The artist feels that these experiences helped him to understand his own culture, pointing out the historic use of hallucinogenic plants as depicted in prehispánica art. After discussing his experiences, he found that others had reached similar realms through meditation or dreams. “Psychedelics are a catalyst, but they are not central to channel what I have seen.” Herrera treats the imagination like a muscle that you exercise and feed. He refers to the amygdala—the area of the brain associated with emotions that initiate the fight-flight-freeze response—as his guiding “reptile.”

Most of the gallery's artists feel that their work is not about drugs, and many of them do not partake at all. Instead, Fehilly explains the gallery’s take on psychedelic art is one of leaning into the amygdala’s urge to create. She describes their philosophy as “letting go of your ego as much as possible and letting… your intuition guide you.” By pivoting the rhetoric away from hallucinogens, the couple aims to move psychedelic art into the contemporary mainstream.

Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

Tania Quezada, Naves de Olvido, 2019. Acrylic on wood. 47.24 x 35.43 in (120 x 90 cm).

“It has always been my intention to create a kind of Bestiary of my own. When defining the terms surreal and psychedelic.”

Tania Quezada

“Since I was a child, I grew up listening to stories of the paranormal, I always felt an attraction to those themes, regardless of whether it exists or not,” explains multidisciplinary artist Pedro Castro. “As a Mexican, I have grown day by day with legends and myths. It is normal to think of demons, ghosts, and gods that manifest in our lives on a different plane than the material one. In everyday life, sorcerers and the evil eye are still necessary to satisfy the esoteric and spiritual demand of today's Mexico.”

Tania Quezada frequently depicts anthropomorphic animals in her paintings reminiscent of the nahualli shape-shifters. Certain subjects evoke “the nahualli because sometimes they come out of legends or folklore,” she explains, adding that they also often represent “psychological archetypes.”

“It has always been my intention to create a kind of Bestiary of my own." When defining the terms surreal and psychedelic, Quezada calls them, "Mental doors to the world that do not exist in this dimension that drown us in reality."

Adrián Bastarrachea believes his work is, "framed in Mexican Expressionism, but it will have something surreal, since I have incorporated much of the European avant-garde.”

Courtesy of The Outsiders Gallery.

Cheke, Today's empires tomorrow ashes, 2016. Silkscreen on paper. 27.55 x 19.68 in (70 x 50 cm).

“Psychedelia has been another element in my aesthetics,” he continues, “it has seemed important to me because it represents a part of ancestral Mexico that is ridiculed by the white Mexican.”

Bastarrachea doesn’t often use the term Surrealism, pointing out its origins as a manifesto. “Since every manifesto invited action, it was a call, I don't think it has to do with a style. It was a movement that exalted art for its own sake, poetry as revolution, it was the last outburst of Romanticism.” He began his relationship with the gallery, “to seek that emotional outburst… to combine discipline with magic.”

Muralist and fine artist Cheke defines the term psychedelic as “vertigo of the soul.” Of his various disciplines, he says, “I like to think of myself in the art world as a magician, who has several tricks up his sleeve.” Regarding nexus points between the physical and nonphysical as a part of everyday life, he describes Mexico as a unique and incomprehensible portal, “conceived in the sacredness of the soul and the nature of the whole; the people who emerged from this geography keep a piece of portal in our DNA.”

Digital artist Luisa Golden views constant online communication as mystical—a virtual world created while people dissociate from reality. “Mexico has always been… a surreal country, full of mysticism, therefore I like to understand my culture from a precisely ritualistic vision.” The artist cites Día de los Muertos as a clear example. “Through the power of mental manifestation, portals are opened in each home to attract those energies that have previously displaced us to the immaterial plane.” She interprets the use of digital devices as mobile portals that store virtual memories and “in turn serve as quantum demonstrators of an intangible reality.”

Dana Barbecho is a tattoo artist who gives new life to her ink drawings through the skin. Defining herself as a Surrealist, she creates new myths, using the artist's name Diabla de Agua (Water Devil). Having grown up in a religious, Catholic family—Barbecho refines the absolutes of heaven and hell by taking the divine and demonic to the imaginary realm.

“There is a phrase that has been adopted, with the lifestyle we have, it is ‘Magical Mexico,'" explains Barbecho. “This reality in any other place would seem absurd but in Mexico, it makes a lot of sense.”

All artist quotations were translated by gallerist Ruth Fehilly.

About the Author

Amy Funderburk

Amy Funderburk is a professional artist and freelance arts writer based in Winston-Salem, NC, specializing in visionary works in which she explores the intersection of the physical world with a more fluid spiritual realm. She works out of the Sternberger Artists Center in Greensboro, NC, and maintains a blog, Drinking from the Well of Inspiration, to provide deeper insight into her creative process. Follow her on twitter: @AFunderburkArt and on Instagram: @AmyFunderburkArtist.

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