Entering Mexicains Sans Frontieres – the live/work space of figurative painter and musician Hugo Claudin – is like crossing over into Oz. It’s all Technicolor.
“I wanted to make an alternative art space here,” says Claudin,
43, sitting on a hot pink couch overshadowed by a green palm tree in
his studio on South Division. There’s a lavender figurine suspended
from the ceiling, a bowl of oranges, and a magenta and yellow birdcage
nearby. The artist wears all black.
Claudin’s paintings, which are possibly even more vibrant than his
decor, use the symbol of the Mexican wrestler as a vehicle to explore
the lives of undocumented immigrants in West Michigan. His most recent
series, also called Mexicains Sans Frontieres, is on display now at the
Richard App Gallery in East Hills. Pieces range in size and retail from
$90 to $1,500.
name is a take on Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders),
an international nonprofit organization that provides medical relief in
60 countries to people in catastrophic situations. By reappropriating
this group’s French name, Claudin makes an ironic statement about the
borderless and multi-cultural existence of some Latino immigrants.
“I just thought it was hilarious,” Claudin says of the name he coined. “Because these Mexicans really don’t have borders.”
Helping to translate
Claudin’s own emigration
story is very different from the undocumented immigrants he helped
during his time as a translator for the Hispanic Center of West
Michigan. It was perfectly legal for him to come to the United States
because his father, a jazz drummer and talent scout for Capitol Records
now deceased, was American. His mother continues to reside in
Guadalajara in her native Mexico.
"I started meeting them and hearing their stories, seeing where they
lived,” he says. “My experience was totally different from theirs. They
go to work and then they hide.” When he isn't pursuing his artistic
interests, Claudin is a community health worker for Spectrum Health.
brings Mexicans into the foreground by casting them as “larger than
life” wrestlers in his rainbow-colored paintings. For inspiration, he
draws on Mexican superheroes like Santo and Blue Demon, who enjoyed careers as both wrestlers and B movie actors.
Incorporating whimsy and Mexican pop culture iconography takes the
edge off the biting social satire and political commentary embedded in
Claudin’s art. Yet for all their eye candy coating, the paintings still
evoke a sense of displacement and isolation—a seminal characteristic of
the undocumented immigrants’ experience in a new country.
“I want it to be playful and fun, but also something that makes you want to find out more,” he says.
to this series vary. People don’t always pick up on the subtext and
have confused the wrestlers with clowns, bank robbers, and, as one
reviewer did, “men in ski masks.”
The reaction from Latino audiences has also been mixed. Claudin
suspects that some would prefer to be identified with more traditional
cultural icons than the campy luchadores—a point well taken when you
consider our own World Wrestling Federation.
“To them, they kind of see it as an insult,” he says of his critics. “They would rather see a mariachi on a horse.”
his experience in coming to the United States and occasional criticism
of his artworks, Claudin says he still strongly self-identifies with
undocumented immigrants and will continue being a voice for this group
that lives under the radar out of legal necessity.
“When I came here on the plane, my cousin said that I would be a
‘minority’. I didn’t know what that meant, but I felt the hairs on the
back of my neck stand up,” Claudin says. “The only difference between
me and an illegal alien is a piece of paper.”
Art as a calling
Claudin originally came to
Grand Rapids from Guadalajara as a teenager with the dream of attending
art school. When his cousins who lived in Grand Rapids told him about
Kendall College of Art and Design, he decided to move here. After
studying illustration and painting at Kendall, he immersed himself in
the local art scene, painting and booking bands for the now defunct
Arco Iris coffee shop.
“We used to rent warehouses and do the whole Andy Warhol thing,” Claudin says. Pop artist Andy Warhol was known for studios like The Factory, where musicians, visual artists, and filmmakers would congregate to collaborate on projects.
A trip to Mexico six years ago re-energized Claudin artistically and
inspired the vivid palette that defines his signature style.
“The trip to Mexico was pivotal,” he says. “I wanted to incorporate all the colors. They were like psychedelic drugs.”
While there, he met a number of colorful characters like a Jewish
storyteller who helped him refocus his artistic vision, and an engraver
who helped him settle on the name Mexicains Sans Frontieres.
After returning to Grand Rapids, Claudin quickly plugged back into
the local arts scene. He participated in the Lorca Project, an
interactive theater piece performed at UICA, and he continued playing
in Latin band Cabildo, which has since reorganized under the name
Villalobos. Claudin has also played with the End Times Orchestra, LSDudes, Rick Beerhoorst Trio, and local hiphop sensation La Famiglia.
When he heard about the Avenue for the Arts lofts
from a friend, Claudin knew it would be the perfect site
for performances -- much better than the apartment and studio that he
rented at the time. The 1,300-square-foot, multi-purpose loft now
serves as living quarters, studio, gallery, performance venue, and band
“I committed myself to booking edgy jazz
there,” says Claudin. “I wanted to make Grand Rapids a stop for that
kind of music.” Mexicains Sans Frontieres has also featured butoh
dance, spoken word, and video projections.
Claudin publicizes Mexicains Sans Frontieres via Facebook and
MySpace, though often performers contact him after hearing about it
through word of mouth. Claudin also rents it out for photo shoots.
“I just see everything as collaboration,” says Claudin. “I see
people as sprockets. I try to hook them up. This opens doors for me
Claudin’s latest musical endeavor is pop rock band the Fainting Generals,
in which he is joined by Juliet Bennett-Rylah, formerly of Super Happy
Fun Time Burlesque. The group is currently recording an album that will
be released August 8 at Founders Brewery.
Ruth Terry is a freelance writer living in the East Hills
neighborhood. She also works as a grant writer for an international
Hugo Claudin (photo courtesy David McGowan)
Hugo's live/work loft doubles as a art gallery and concert hall
Hugo plays the piano at home
Hugo Claudin in redPhotographs by Brian Kelly (unless noted otherwise)