Paper, glue, cardboard: "La Cartonería Mexicana"

Jan. 27—details

—La Cartonería Mexicana

—Opens Sunday, Jan. 29, runs through Nov. 3, 2024

—Hispanic Heritage Wing, Museum of International Folk Art, 706 Camino Lejo

—Admission $3-$12, 16 and younger free, discounts available; 505-476-1204,

The skeleton leans forward menacingly, reaching toward some unseen and unfortunate soul as it grins. All it would take to end the 71-inch perceived threat is a little bit of rain.

Skeleton Figure is among more than 100 artworks featured in the Museum of International Folk Art's La Cartonería Mexicana which opens Sunday, Jan. 29. Cartonería, which originated in both Mexico City and Celaya, Mexico, is made with papier-mâché, which consists of three simple ingredients: paper, glue, cardboard.

The results are anything but simple — designed to convey emotion, imagination, or tradition. They take forms such as piñatas, dolls, and fantasy animals called alebrijes, and feature prominently in the fiestas of Carnival and Holy Week in spring, Corpus Christi in summer, Día de Muertos in fall, and Christmas in winter.

Among the other pieces in La Cartonería Mexicana are the self- descriptive Yellow Skull Mask, which offers a more enthusiastic and friendly smile than Skeleton Figure, and Wrestler, a black-clad figure with piercing blue eyes.

Many of the pieces came from the collection of late Santa Fe art connoisseur Alexander Girard, who famously bequeathed thousands of works he'd collected to the museum. As of mid-January, they were still being moved into the display space from a location the museum opted not to disclose for security reasons. That location houses more than 100,000 additional pieces collected by Girard.

The pieces in La Cartonería Mexicana were created between 1960 and 2000, says exhibition guest curator Nora Dolan, which roughly aligns with Girard's most active time as a collector. (He died in 1993.) Many of the pieces in the exhibition haven't been shown at the museum before, and all came from Mexico City, Celaya, or the state of Nayarit in west central Mexico.

Dolan says she worked with two advisers in Mexico City — Leigh Thelmadatter and Marta Turok — to ensure the culture was reflected properly in La Cartonería Mexicana.

Dolan and Leslie Fagre, the museum's director of education, visited Mexico City in November. Among their stops was the home of Leonardo Linares, a member of a family famed for creating alebrijes. In August, Linares will create an alebrije in the museum's atrium, in view of visitors.

Two bilingual museum staff members will serve as translators if observers have questions for Linares. Dates and times will be solidified as they draw nearer. Check the museum's website for details.

Fagre describes the Linares home as modest, built vertically in a dense neighborhood.

"We went up these tiny stairs up to a studio space, which is very, very small, crammed with objects, and had everything in there from a photo of Michael Jackson to, I think, the Beatles," she says. "There were just all kinds of things on the wall, including a whole bunch of his artwork in progress."

Turok, born to American parents who emigrated to Mexico after World War II, is the curator for the Ruth D. Lechuga folk art collection at the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City. Thelmadatter is a journalist in Mexico City who herself emigrated from the United States about 25 years ago. They wrote many of the short essays that accompany pieces of art in the exhibition, in both Spanish and English.

La Cartonería Mexicana also is a partnership with the Mexican government.

"This exhibition is a part of the 200-year anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and Mexico," Dolan says. "The Mexican consulate [in Albuquerque] has been part of helping to promote and support this exhibition. It was very important to us to reach out to the Mexican community and government, to have this exhibition be bilingual."

A free outreach exhibition is planned in front of the museum's entrance June through August, featuring large cartonería. It plans to focus some of the July and August sessions of its Arts Alive family program on papier-mâché creations.

The time required to create cartonería varies, depending partly on the size of a work. Papier-mâché involves creating layers, each of which requires time to dry.

"How much paste artists put on depends on what kind of paper they use," Dolan says. "The recipe for flour paste varies greatly and sometimes includes vinegar. Vinegar is added; some sugar is added. It's a folk tradition, and people have their own recipes."

In addition to containing a variety of recipes, some of the pieces are made of reeds, a material that's plentiful in the marshland around Mexico City. As a result, the art is especially sensitive to the conditions.

"We have worked with the conservation team with the Department of Cultural Affairs to clean, care for, and repair this work, and make sure that it is displayed correctly," Dolan says. "The lights need to not be too bright. Galleries can't be too hot or too cold or have too much humidity, because it's a fragile art."