A Strange Nightmare: the de la Torre Brothers’ “Upward Mobility”

by Neil Fauerso May 11, 2024
Lenticular print of a carnival scene in a pool

Einar and Jamex de la Torre, “Vodyanoy,” 2021, archival lenticular print, aluminum LED panel, and resin. Courtesy of Einar and Jamex de la Torre and Koplin Del Rio Gallery.

The de la Torre brothers’ work is often described as “maximalist,” which is both accurate and vague; Jeff Koons, Dave LaChapelle, Zack Snyder, Richard Wagner, and Phil Spector could be similarly described with a respective wide range of qualities, aesthetics, and ideologies. Upward Mobility, an ambitious exhibit in the McNay’s newer wing, is maximally maximal — aesthetics, conception, and meaning are cranked to 11 — creating a show that is lush and grotesque, trippy yet direct. 

It’s truly a multimedia exhibit, combining sculpture, video, holograms, blown glass, wallpaper, animal heads, and other items. The effect is overwhelming; one feels both dazzled and nauseated, often at the same time and with the same work. The de la Torres collide highs and lows with form and symbol. The hologram, seen most frequently on baseball cards and novelty stores, is nestled within refined glass and China works. Likewise, Aztec and Olmec imagery shares the stage with pop culture nods, monster movies, and an array of vaginas formed from cacti, arteries, etc. A pair of chandeliers with glass arms holding the lights pays homage to Jean Cocteau’s living arm sconces in Beauty and the Beast, but instead of candles, they hold broken bottles. History is a brawl, culture is a brawl, life is a brawl. 

The messiness of the maximalism has an ethos. Take the richly adorned table, the centerpiece of the show. There is a long artistic tradition of tables of splendor going back to DaVinci’s Last Supper and beyond, with contemporary notable examples such as Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (where each place setting is for an important, trailblazing woman) and Roxy Paine’s Dinner of Dictators (where each place setting is the favored meal of a historical dictator). The de la Torre table is resplendent with fur jackets and shawls draped over the chairs, but there is a mirror on the floor reflecting the literal underbelly of the table, an infernal nest of organs and viscera. This is the offal meat of luxury; “how the sausage gets made” is the bloody, beating heart behind the show’s adornment. In this way, Upward Mobility pairs resonantly with the brilliant Blanton exhibit from a few years ago, Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America, which presented colonialism as a fevered and deeply strange nightmare, one whose strangeness is only blunted by its reality. The ritual of upward mobility in life often involves some form of sacrifice. 

Installation view of a highly stylized sculptural table and a gallery space filled with sculptures

Installation view of “de la Torre Brothers: Upward Mobility” at the McNay San Antonio.

“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters,” wrote Antonio Gramsci when he was locked in a fascist prison some ninety years ago. The quote is less prescient than an ongoing truism — an extended slow-motion sequence, repeated and riffed on, some new homage to a past monster snorting awake and wandering into power.

One installation in Upward Mobility has two projected screens on opposite walls — one of a classic Godzilla, the other of a supersized Vladimir Putin. An overhead projector displays a city scene on the floor between the two monsters, allowing viewers to trample away. The symbol is obvious — that we have created our own set of nuclear Godzillas roaring across the globe unrestrained, but the overhead projector adds a clever twist. I thought of the cutting scene in William Friedkin’s Sorceror, when soon-to-be disgraced French investment banker Victor Manzon listens to his wife read from the memoirs of a “soldier-poet,” Col. Etienne DeBray of the Foreign Legion: Adventure and the Glory of Colonial France:

“When I lowered my hand, the cannons would commence firing. I saw a woman carrying a jar on her head. In seconds my gesture would remove her from this world. Whose gesture would remove me? When, and how?”

Installation view of a large Olmec head sculpture, an astronaut figure, and a moon like backdrop

Einar and Jamex de la Torre, “Colonial Atmosphere,” 2002, mixed media. Courtesy of Einar and Jamex de la Torre and Koplin Del Rio Gallery

This flux dynamic of mobility, the people that step on you and those you step on, is the essence of the show — but its destinations are never completely bleak, since they’re offset by colorful, sensual, and often humorous tones. Take the installation at the back, a vision of the moon landing with an Olmec lunar module. Inside are black mannequins in colorful jumpsuits with chains around their necks. The de la Torres draw attention to the unheralded contributions to space travel — the mathematical and astronomy innovations of Mexican civilization of the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs; the Black people that built much of the South from where the space shuttles launched. Here, in this revision, they get their due, looking back at an earth engulfed in flames. 

The rollicking, Fellini-esque nature of Upward Mobility is refreshing and potent, like an unfathomably strong tropical cocktail. These days, some large-scale contemporary museum exhibits engage in a sort of Forensic Architecture-core, heavily researched, immense amounts of wall texts, interviews, and double-digit minute video installations, all didactically effective, but somewhat dreary and exhausting. The de la Torre brothers’ works have a joyous insouciance — like the Moon landing piece, they are roasting the world, recalling the concept of “relajo” that Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco have employed with devastating and hilarious results over the years. As Diana Taylor writes in her essay “A Savage Performance: Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco’s ‘Couple in the Cage'”:

“Relajo is “una burla colectiva” (a collective prank), an act of sardonic devalorization, or what the late Mexican intellectual Jorge Portilla, in Fenomenología del relajo (1984), calls ‘desolidarization’ with dominant norms in order to create a different, rebellious solidarity — that of the underdog.”

installation view of mixed media sculptures on pedestals and walls

Installation view of “de la Torre Brothers: Upward Mobility” at the McNay San Antonio.

America is, to quote John Steinbeck, the land of temporarily embarrassed millionaires, all desperately scrambling for their moonshot of making it. Upward Mobility understands the grisliness of such a journey, and the absurdity too, the fun house mirror gargoyle one becomes when they finally reach the top. 


de la Torre Brothers: Upward Mobility is on view at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio through September 15, 2024.


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Erica Lee May 12, 2024 - 18:00

I strolled into this show earlier this week with no expectation or knowledge of the de la Torre Brothers and was just as Fauerso described: overwhelmed, a tad nauseated, and dazzled. Great work describing the show. I recommend anyone in SA to check it out as well.

Laura May 14, 2024 - 17:35

I’ve seen this exhibit, and was blown away. Clearly I need to visit again after reading your review.


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