James Oles Has Published 'Most Comprehensive Work in the Subject in 50 Years'

September 10, 2013

Senior Lecturer in Art James Oles has recently published Art and Architecture in Mexico (Thames and Hudson, 2013), a new interpretive history of Mexican art from the Spanish Conquest to the early decades of the 21st century. The publisher describes it as the most comprehensive introduction to the subject in 50 years.

The 420-page book contains a full bibliography and 275 images. Seven works from the Davis permanent collection are significant enough to be included in the book:

  • Ex-voto of Josefa Peres Maldonado, 1777, painting (pictured here)
  • Antico Cruces and Luis Campa, Coffee Seller, c. 1870-75 (one of an album), photo
  • Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Two Pairs of Legs, c. 1930, photo
  • Gunther Gerzso, Cenote, 1947, painting
  • Alfredo Zalce, Mexico Is Transformed into a Great City, 1947, print
  • José Luis Cuevas, Woman (Asylum Figure), 1954
  • Rubén Ortiz-Torres, The Revolution Will Be Televised, 1994, print

Through investigations of the mix of painting, sculpture, prints, photographs, and architecture and urban planning, the book's 10 chapters focus on:

  1. Mexico's rich cultural history;
  2. Cultural blending in early decades after the Conquest;
  3. Art associated with the conversion of Indians;
  4. The splendor of baroque cities;
  5. National identity crafted in the 19th century academy;
  6. Women artists;
  7. The violence of the Mexican Revolution and new cultural forms that emerged from that;
  8. Frida Kahlo and Surrealism;
  9. Post-War Abstraction; and
  10. The current scene including conceptual artists making and showing art internationally.

Oles has served as adjunct curator of Latin American art at the Davis Museum since 2002; he was a key player in presenting the Davis's recent acquisition, conservation, and showing of A Lady from Lima, a marvelous portrait of a young woman, painted in Peru in the late 18th century and not previously exhibited. He has also been an influential teacher in his area of specialty during his years at Wellesley. “One of my proudest achievements is having five former students go on to pursue Ph.D.s in Latin American art,” he writes in his faculty profile.

“My lectures focus on the history of Mexico from the ancient through modern eras (a student once called my survey class ‘Mayas to Tamayos’). In more focused seminars, we might deal with public art in Mexico and the United States, the representation of Mexico in cinema, or exhibitions of Latin American art. As well as teaching students how to look carefully and critically, I want them all to be careful and critical writers, and thus push them hard.”

They have a good model in Oles, whose new book was described by Donna Pierce, curator of Spanish colonial art and head of the New World department of the Denver Art Museum, as “a lucid—at times, even poetic—summary of 500 years of Mexican art. The illustrated works of art are well-chosen and beautifully integrated into Oles’s text. Indeed, it feels as if his words emanate from the art itself.”

Oles is taking his expertise and book on the road this season. On September 10, 2013, he appears at the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth in conversation with Francis Alÿs, the acclaimed Belgian-born, Mexico City-based artist who had his first one-man show at the Davis in 2011, and now has a piece in the Davis's permanent collection (Cityscape, purchased with funds provided by Wellesley College Friends of Art). The Fort Worth conversation format will follow that which Oles and Alÿs undertook in presenting the latter's work at Wellesley.

Oles will proceed to lectures in Houston, San Antonio, and Los Angeles; on Wednesday, October 23, 2013, New York University hosts a special panel discussion, sponsored by the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art, called Mexican Art in Focus: New Research in Mexican Art History, which also celebrates the publication of Art and Architecture in Mexico. Speakers will include Edward J. Sullivan (Helen Gould Sheppard Professor in the History of Art, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU), moderator; Barbara Mundy (Fordham University); Katherine Manthorne (CUYNY); Mary Coffey (Dartmouth); and Oles, who will also lecture separately in Boston this spring.