On Glasstire, not everything we label as a ‘review’ is strictly a review, and not everything we cover is strictly art. With that caveat, I’d love to call uncritical attention to a charming not-quite-art exhibition I caught a few weeks ago at the International Museum of Art & Science (IMAS) in McAllen, a town in the Texas valley across the border from Reynosa, Mexico. It’s a people-pleaser, and runs through Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, so if you’re anywhere in the Rio Grande Valley with family and you want an outing that could work for kids and parents as much as music and craft and design aficionados, this one’s for you (all).
It’s called, nerdily, Symphony of Color, and it’s a well-conceived advertisement for a popular longtime music store in McAllen and Mexico City called Hermes Music. The company’s charitable foundation collaborated with the indigenous Huichol (or Wixáritari) artisans of western Mexico who specialize in intricate yarn and beadwork. The show is made up of 40 or so musical instruments, from xylophones to electric bases to flutes to bongos to… didgeridoos, all covered in absolutely exquisite Huichol beadwork. Tiny chaquira glass beads, set invisibly with soft wax, create incredible patterns and starbursts of color, wrapping the instruments in a kind of rarefied skin — abstracted flora and fauna and myths and celestial blooms and groovy zigs and zags. The patterns and images are traditional, playful, and universally seductive. They create a dazzling armor of delicate glass — armoring the instruments’ varnished wood, curved brass, tightened animal skin. The result is pretty wonderful.
In this part of the world, the influential reach of Huichol design-work is almost a felt thing, and made more visceral in this intimate show. Because of this, these encrusted instruments seem both completely novel and reassuringly familiar. The show brings together two disparate things in a remarkable way: the shapes and mechanisms of instruments you’ve known for years (perhaps in a pretty hands-on way, if you play guitar or were in your school’s orchestra or a college band), and a kind of beadwork patterning that’s reached your consciousness, if not through tradition or travel, then through cultural osmosis. The combo makes for a marvelously strange viewing experience.
The beadwork is incredibly precise. A curator told me that the Huichol artists work without templates. They just go at it, free-hand, like great jazz players improving off the Dorian minor scale. Musical instruments aren’t the normal Huichol canvas, given that the wax-set beadwork makes the instruments unplayable — a beaded violin has lost its acoustic balance, and a beaded cowbell hit with a stick would send beads flying. But here’s where the lovely second act of the show comes in.
Prior to sending them to the Huichol artists, the instruments were used by musicians to record a sweet composition that employs all the instruments in the show. There’s a speaker installed above each instrument, and as the parts blend together in song in the center of the gallery — wind and string and percussion instruments weaving in and out of the tune — you can walk along the periphery and listen to each instrument’s part in isolation. It’s a light, lilting song, a bit melancholy in parts, and uplifting in others, and catchy. After five minutes in the space I found myself humming along, and the ear worm lasted the rest of the day, after I’d hit the road to head back east toward Houston. This show at IMAS was the last stop on a gratifying four-day trip though the Valley. It was the perfect coda.
Through June 30, 2019 at the International Museum of Art & Science (IMAS) in McAllen, Texas.