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Spain had Picasso. France had Monet. Italy, Michelangelo. And Tijuana had Benjamin Serrano.

By Derrik Chinn

Credited as the first artist to usher the border city onto the international art scene, Serrano fused Mexican and American influences to make for a hybrid style that defied traditional classification on multiple counts. Much like Tijuana itself, his work is colorful, whimsical and carnal, an incomparably iconic blend of surrealism, pop and social anthropology.

Benjamin Serrano

The manner in which he reflected the city and offered its citizens’ a visual representation of Tijuana as a philosophy was something no artist had attempted before to such an extent. Or even really bothered to attempt. No small feat, for sure.

But his greatest legacy is the way in which he captured the aesthetic of a geopolitical entity as unique, complicated and unabashedly bizarre as Tijuana, which provided a new dimension of what it means to be Mexican.

All this comes together in “Benjamin Serrano, Transcendence and Vanguard from Tijuana,” which opened Friday in El Cubo — Centro Cultural Tijuana’s 2008, $9 million expansion. The most extensive gathering of Serrano’s works to date, the exhibit includes 55 paintings, sculptures, drawings and other significant works that span his career from the 1950s until his death in 1988, many of which have never been on public display before, as well as a collection of personal letters, postcards and documents on loan from family and friends.

“As a pioneer Benjamin Serrano knew how to observe, analyze and transform with acuity, irony and great humor the day-to-day living in a city where one finds culture in a way that’s very sincere, raw and for unfamiliar eyes maybe violent,” said curator Olga Margarita Davila.

An extended residency in Paris sharpened his avant-garde eye, while his travels to Oaxaca deepened his connection with Mexican artisan culture. But it was Tijuana’s physical and cultural proximity to the United States that allowed him access to Los Angeles and San Francisco, a key ingredient in his trademark fusion of surrealism and pop.

Among the pieces more obviously inspired by his bordertown muse are a tribute to Juan Soldado, a federal solder executed for rape and murder in 1939 who later became a would-be unofficial folk saint for undocumented migrants, an urban legend that continues to stir controversy in Tijuana today; and an epic mural depicting Hernan Cortes’ indigenous lover La Malinche perched atop a toilet, nude except for a pair of high heels, surrounded by warriors bearing newspaper armor and Pepsi shields.

While his take on religion, sexuality and authority proved to be too graphic for Mexico City — “too much for los chilangos,” Davila said — it was just as provocative as the American scene would permit. Serrano illustrates a vivid connection to not just the border but the city as a link to two separate cultural and political entities, a stigma that continues to relevantly illustrate Tijuana, Davila said, “with hope, courage and adaptation to change.”

Tijuana to a tee.

Located a mile from the San Ysidro border crossing on Paseo de los Heroes, Centro Cultural Tijuana is open daily; admission is free on Sundays. “Benjamin Serrano, Transcendence and Vanguard from Tijuana” runs through October. More info at cecut.gob.mx.

Derrik Chinn- From unassuming reporter to freedom-loving Turista Libre (free tourist), Derrik Chinn’s reputation as underground concierge to the traveler has grown. Chinn, who has been spidering about in Tijuana with groups of tourists looking for a different kind of Mexico experience, is now sharing some of his insights and perspectives on Baja.com.

Baja.com is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula, supported by a full-service tour operator staffed by Baja locals (our “Baja Travel Savants”). We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurantshotels and vacation rentals, as well as guides, maps and articles about events, sports and activities. We provide bilingual customer support, information and sales seven days a week, 365 days a year.

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