This past winter, kurimanzutto, New York, hosted its inaugural group show TODOS JUNTOS (All Together) at the gallery’s new Chelsea location. Mexico City-based artist Minerva Cuevas (b. 1975) exhibited Dodgem BP (2002). A lime green bumper car sat in the gallery imprinted with the starburst logo of the multinational oil and gas company BP.
The work was part of Cuevas’s first solo project with kurimanzutto, DODGEM, which took place in the spring of 2002, back when the gallery’s program centered on nomadic exhibitions in non-traditional spaces. For a ride at a local funfair in the Mixcoac neighborhood of Mexico City, the artist branded several bumper cars—or dodgems—with the logos of leading petroleum companies. The seemingly playful yet symbolically violent act of bumping another rider with an electric car mimicked the battle between oil companies as they fought to control international markets. DODGEM marked Cuevas’s first artistic engagement with energy geopolitics.
Two decades later, the same starburst logo hovers over the landscape in Cuevas’s new site-specific mural The Trust (2023) currently on view in the artist’s solo show In Gods We Trust at kurimanzutto, New York. On the occasion of the exhibition, the gallery takes the opportunity to look back at twenty years of Cuevas's artistic practice that tackles the global economization of natural resources as one of her primary subjects of investigation. kurimanzutto is pleased to share these projects with you for the third iteration of From the Archive.
Causa y efecto, 2007
Whether activating a ride at a fair or presenting one of her many large-scale murals, Cuevas’s work appropriates the language of corporate advertising in the form of site-specific interventions. Her first solo exhibition at kurimanzutto, La venganza del elefante (The Elephant’s Revenge) (2007), took place in a warehouse in the Condesa neighborhood that the gallery occupied for a couple of years. The works on view revealed a more direct engagement with the economic and environmental consequences of oil extraction and the socio-political interrelations that preserve the industry.
Causa y efecto (Cause and Effect) (2007) was painted on the garage door outside kurimanzutto’s warehouse. The mural depicts the Mexican government-owned oil company Pemex’s logo with an eagle's head submerged in a red drop as an oil spill rises from the concrete below, threatening a penguin and its chick. The scene ties the global environmental crisis to the national oil industry.
Serie hidrocarburos, 2007–present
Causa y efecto and the other works on view in La venganza del elefante were the result of field research Cuevas conducted in Campeche along the Gulf of Mexico in search of chapopoteras—pits where chapopote, a hydrocarbon similar to tar, is naturally extruded. Serie hidrocarburos (Hydrocarbon series) (2007–present) is a body of work where the artist dips objects in chapopote. The practice references the pre-Hispanic custom of painting ceremonial and utilitarian sculptures and vessels with the viscous substance.
Objects related to marine exploration and materials dipped in tar fill a table akin to an archeological display. Alongside these objects rest newspaper clippings documenting an accident on nearby oil rigs that were on fire for two months, photographs taken by oil rig workers, and postcards of international oil ships and marine wildlife. One image captures a penguin marred by chapopote. Ten years later, Cuevas still works with chapopote, as seen in the ceramic polar bear whose mobility is inhibited by tar and left with Nowhere to roam.
In La venganza del elefante, Cuevas also exhibited her first chapopote painting from a found canvas depicting the Popocatépetl volcano in Puebla, Mexico. Semi-hardened drips flow from the bottom of a landscape that has since been scraped of its natural resources. The work references the orographic research conducted by the geologist Ezequiel Ordónez, who located the first commercial production well to be drilled in Mexico in the early twentieth century.
Another work in Serie hidrocarburos forms a tall column of found vintage metal oil barrels branded with the Esso logo, a trading name for ExxonMobile that branded one of the bumper cars still running in Mixcoac. Esso along with Roshfrans and Quaker State mark a trio of chapopote-dipped vintage oil cans whose brand colors resemble national flags. An actual Mexican flag hung from the ceiling nearby. Yet the green and white sections of the flag are completely obscured by chapopote.
Cuevas continues to work with chapopote, whether the substance covers a ceramic animal figurine, a found seascape, or her motor oil vases. The vases are filled with an array of artificial flowers whose ability to imitate nature is made possible by hydrocarbons.
Feast and Famine, 2015
Cuevas’s second solo exhibition Feast and Famine was at kurimanzutto’s current gallery space in the San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood. The exhibition explored another natural and economic resource: cacao. Prior to the oil boom, cacao was not only a valuable export from Mexico, but the seeds were also used as currency in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican cultures. In the installation Feast (2015), similar to the table display in Serie hidrocarburos, Cuevas presented objects such as replicas of bones dipped in chocolate and a series of documents that illustrate the Mesoamerican origins of cacao. Wooden figurines of two monkeys stood on the table. Monkeys were associated with cacao in pre-Hispanic mythology since they fertilized the earth by eating the fruits of the cacao tree and excreting the seeds.
The large-scale mural painting Bittersweet – Hershey’s (2015) depicts a Hershey’s chocolate bar with its familiar wrapping ripped at the center to expose an illustration of European cannibalism. The role of the cannibal is reversed recalling the Colombian scholar Carlos Jáuregui’s theory that cannibalism has been more historically prevalent in Europe than in the Americas. In the mural, Cuevas reveals the colonialism present in the dynamics of global trade, speciifically the capitalist exploitation of cacao that began with cannibalistic impulses initiated by colonialization.
Cuevas employs irony and humor in her work to analyze the power structures that underlie social and economic ties. In Pleasure Island (2015), a shelf holds a plastic figurine of the mouse Jerry from the American franchise Tom and Jerry. Jerry is nestled inside a plastic replica of a human intestine that leads to a framed black-and-white advertisement for a type of Whitman’s chocolates called “Pleasure Island.” The advertisement illustrates Spaniards defeating a native population with an accompanying text that implies that the chocolates were pillaged and brought back to Spain for European consumption. Cuevas ties European claims of indigenous savagery to their own cultural cannibalism by highlighting the extraction of local resources from other regions and the glorification of the violence associated with the conquest.
During her research, Cuevas discovered that North America relies mainly on the importation of African cacao, while the majority of Mexican cacao is exported to Europe. For Feast and Famine, the artist produced 500 chocolate ears made from the native cacao of Grano Real Xoconusco, cultivated in the state of Chiapas. The ears reference the pre-Hispanic practice of using the body as a unit of measurement, as well as early anthropological efforts to compare races and cultures by measuring and documenting the human body. In linking a severed human ear to Mexican cacao, Cuevas draws consumers' attention to the social cannibalism in exploitative labor.
The Greatness of a Nation, 2004
For the Sydney Biennial 2004, the artist produced the mural The Greatness of a Nation (2004), where her subject was the kangaroo leather industry in Australia. Part of the mural depicts an Adidas branded soccer cleat with white fangs replacing the standard plastic studs. A skeleton of a kangaroo stood in a pile of dirt confronting the scene. The title references a well-known quote by Gandhi, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Terra Primitiva, 2006
For her participation in the 27a Biennial de Sao Paulo, Cuevas focused on the devastation of the Amazon region in her mural Terra Primitiva (Primitive Land) (2006). The verdant and vibrant home of a gigantic snake, monkey, and bird are shown in a state of distress as planes crash into the rain forest. The scene is a playful, graphic representation of the exploitation and expropriation of natural resources by various companies whose branding populates the mural. The branding of Cargill and Monsanto—here painted in black—stand out amongst the warm palette of the Amazon. The two U.S.-based multinational agrochemical corporations have been complicit in the devastation portrayed in the mural for over a century.
Like in Greatness of a Nation, Cuevas also references the indigenous communities that have been expelled from their lands. The artist presents a cause for the expulsion on the top right of the mural. Words from the Terena tribe are written in white typography against a strip of black: “El hombre blanco tiene miedo a escuchar” (The white man is afraid to listen). Yet perhaps a sliver of hope remains amongst the rubble. Chico Mendes—the Brazilian union leader and environmentalist—is depicted on the surface of a column with the mural’s destruction behind him.
The group exhibition GESELLSCHAFSTBILDER. ZEITGENÖSSISCHE MALEREI (Images of Society. Contemporary Painting) at the Kunstverein in Hamburg, Germany, explored the relation of painting to society, raising questions about how art can represent societies through documentary or social strategies. For the show, Cuevas produced the large-scale mural Formula (2007).
At the center of the mural, two black dung beetles embrace a white pill. A green insect mounts a pesticide sprayer on one side of the mural and a field of poppies populates the other. The scene, comprised of images seemingly collaged from a biology textbook, illustrates the connection between the pharmaceutical industry and the natural world. Together, the visually engaging references maintain a clear social underpinning, while resisting a definitive reading. Seen here and throughout her practice, Cuevas goes beyond documenting the present through employing the official visual language of the mass media to draw unseen relationships.
Fine Lands, 2018
In Fine Lands (2018), like in Cuevas’s past murals, accountability is grounded in the local environment where the works are created. Bats surged from a derrick into the red sky morphing into oil as it spilled down the ceiling and walls of the Dallas Museum of Art’s main passageway—like the tar that falls from the chapopote paintings. The artist painted the landscape of Texas filled with comic book-like graphic imagery of giant ants, a turtle, and prairie dogs ready for combat. Taking Texas as her site of inquiry, Cuevas illustrated a dystopian panoramic view—similar to the scene in Terra Primitiva—of a place where the natural and industrial clash, and the indigenous wildlife fights for their lives.
The Discovery of Invisible Nature, 2019
A similar scene is found in The Discovery of Invisible Nature (2019), which was included as part of the group exhibition Soft Power at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Bears and wolves occupy the green mural of the almost invisible landscape of a mined earth. Smokey the Bear—the advertising icon of the U.S. Forest Service, which has been used in their Wildfire Prevention Campaign since 1944—wears his ranger’s hat and caries a broken arrow in one hand and a fawn in the other. Three more bears lift a fallen tree while a pair of wolves keeps watch. In the background, we again see a derrick with bats emerging from it, along with a tractor and a smoking-cooling tower. The mural references the well-researched argument that the suppression of fires is counterproductive to wildfire prevention and reminds us of the fire management practices of indigenous populations in California.
The industrial structures shown in the mural suggest a collective human presence of some kind, at some time, while their physical presence remains absent. The seamless merging of disparate graphic elements devoid of a temporal narrative allows viewers to form their own associations with the land and the species that share the same resources.
Utopista / quiauitl, 2000–2020
Utopista / quiauitl (2000–2021), presented as part of the project Siembra at kurimanzutto, Mexico City, looks back at two decades of Cuevas’s practice to show the abundance of social contexts that the artist has referenced in her work. Murals, as well as posters, are fundamental to her artistic practice.
A wide range of posters was dispersed over a mural painted on the wall of the gallery. The 22 serigraphs were displayed and distributed in exhibitions, but mainly used in demonstrations in public spaces. Cuevas appropriates the language of advertising in her posters and across her work, employing the potency of slogans and symbols to prompt questions and sway sociopolitical consciousness.
The posters convey both the breadth of Cuevas’s investigations as well as the consistent concerns that preoccupy her practice—whether that be contemporary colonial relations, the exploitation of natural resources and labor, or social ecology. The production and distribution of posters serve as a tool for Cuevas to create messages that subvert the original intention of advertising logos and historical and popular references to encourage collective resistance and the construction of new realities.
The image, says the artist, “is anchored in our codes and desires. She knows us even before we finish seeing her.” The artist’s use of consumer branding in her practice encourages viewers to rethink how advertising images function and how they can thwart our understanding of where sociopolitical responsibility lies.
Recipe for a little landscape, 2021
For the 11th Seoul Mediacity Biennale, Cuevas recreated a traditional Korean landscape filled with forestry and mountains as a pixelated image. The piece provides an account of our representations of the natural world in the digital environment. A woman sits on a rock accompanied by a rabbit and gazes out at the pixelated setting. This central figure was inspired by Yim Soon-rye, the South Korean filmmaker, who is considered to be one of the few leading female auteurs of Korean New Wave cinema, and an animal rights activist. A can of SPAM is depicted in the lower right-hand corner, recalling the Korean War in the early 1950s when the U.S. military introduced this canned meat to South Korea. The product remains popular among the population today.
In Recipe for a little landscape (2021), Cuevas provides an ecofeminist recipe for reimagining our relationship to our landscape and those we share that landscape with.
The Enterprise, 2021
In Cuevas’s most recent works, she continues her commitment to the panoramic large-scale landscape. Instead of painting directly onto the wall, the artist paints Styrofoam with industrial white paint to create a relief. The first project of this nature, The Enterprise (2021), was produced for at Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany. The work comprises 48 panels that together depict corporate logos from the world of finance and pre-Hispanic symbolic representations of Mesoamerican deities to form an archaeological scene of both the past and present.
A cacao tree, similar to the one in Bittersweet – Hershey’s, is depicted on the right of the landscape along with a monkey from the Ecuadorian Jama-Coaque culture who eats the fruits the tree bears. Above the monkey is pyramid shaped logo of Commerzbank, the German private bank. With arrows directed up at the scene, a narrative arc is drawn from early economic activities in pre-Hispanic communities and the contemporary banking industry.
In Gods We Trust, 2022–2023
The Trust, Cuevas’s most recent large-scale mural on view in In Gods We Trust at kurimanzutto, New York, forms a landscape out of fragments of advertising logos from various oil companies and banks, particularly those that are relevant in New York. Loose histories of relationships between these companies are subtly drawn, such as Citigroup's acquisition of Banamex to form Citibanamex.
Entangled within the corporate logos are representations of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican deities and indigenous flora and fauna. In the left-hand panels, Chalchiuhtlicue, the Aztec goddess of water and fertility, stands within the stream composed of Marathon Oil’s undulated waves, with the bald eagle from First Republic Bank soaring above. On the right, Quetzalcóatl, the Aztec deity capable of moving through earth and sky, slithers down the mural. Quetzalcóatl bites Pegasus of Mobile who leaps over a reiteration of Bank of America’s American flag that here reads as a field adjacent to the palm tree from Saudi Arabia’s national emblem.
Cuevas’s compositions present a parallel between the imagery of natural and mythical motifs that once sustained values of power in Mesoamerican cultures to the imagery that now sustains global trade. Her scenes here and elsewhere blur geographic and temporal boundaries to explore how people have, for centuries, both used and abused land for economic gain. In the repeated illustration of familiar cultural symbols within different contexts, Cuevas encourages audiences to discover their own, perhaps invisible, relationships with and responsibility to the visible ecosystems they inhabit.