Dark Comedy: The de la Torres Brothers at the McNay

Though they began their careers as artists independently, glass blowing brought them together and taught brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre how to collaborate.

“It has a pretty steep learning curve. It’s expensive. You have to carry your piece when you’re making it. But it fascinates us because there’s simply no other material that is as spontaneous as glass,” says Jamex de la Torre of the brothers’ decades-long love and working relationship with this equally fiery and delicate artistic medium. “You can have a piece that’s completely polished in bright colors in two days out of the oven. It also forces spontaneity because you can’t set the piece down. You have to finish it. It’s still our favorite material.”

This summer Texans can take a journey into some strange and beautiful glass worlds created by Einar and Jamex as San Antonio’s McNay Art Museum presents the new exhibition de la Torre Brothers: Upward Mobility, on view until Sept. 15, 2024.

Upward Mobility is divided into four galleries filled with glass sculpture, lenticular prints, video, and large scale mixed-media installations. While not necessarily a full survey of the brothers’ acclaimed career, the exhibition offers a unique blending of brand new and signature work from the past 20 years. The show also joins a separate site-specific commission for the museum’s AT&T Lobby that was installed several months previously. Titled Latin Exoskeleton, the installation covers the entrance desk and lobby walls with trompe l’oeil wallpaper and prints.

The exhibition’s co-curator René Paul Barilleaux uses the analogy of a short story collection to describe how each gallery represents a distinct tale, with similar themes connecting them all.

“I think there’s a common thread in all four rooms about our relationship to nature and to consumption, which of course is of nature and its resources,” explains Einar de la Torre.

With the lobby acting as a kind of “teaser,” according to Barilleaux, the first gallery might lure viewers into thinking this will be a traditional exhibition with sculptures on pedestals and glass art on wall, albeit an exhibition filled with startling color and juxtapositions of ancient and mythological iconography and pop culture images.

Heading into the second gallery puts any ideas of a staid exhibition to rest, as museum-goers will find themselves entering into a decadent and disturbing immersive banquet hall. Titled “Le Point de Bascule” (the Tipping Point), the gallery is filled with mounted animals, fur coats, glass heads, human arm chandeliers and splashes of blood-red color everywhere.

Jamex de la Torre says that in keeping with Barilleaux’s analogy of the rooms being separate short stories in a collection, we might think of the first two galleries telling stories of humanity’s relationships to the natural world. While some might interpret this banquet as a critique of consumption, especially by the very rich, like everything the brothers create, the artwork is both a physical layering of objects and a figurative layering of meanings.

The third gallery features large-scale lenticular prints that tell their own 3D stories of hybrid mythical monsters destroying ancient and modern cities, as well as a giant floor projection of an animated view of México City in real time. Jamex describes these prints as illustrating the showdown between technology and nature.

The final gallery showcases their famous large-scale installation “Colonial Atmosphere” depicting an Olmec head-shaped lunar module landing on a tire-strewn moon with an image of the Earth burning in the background.

“We didn’t completely mean it to be that way, but you can almost see a linear story going from chapter to chapter,” says Jamex de la Torre of these thematic portraits of humans manipulating and sometimes destroying nature. Yet much of the work is laced with dark comedy.

Einar says “Colonial Atmosphere” makes many layered critiques, not the least of which is the ambition of some billionaires to abandon Earth as they build rockets to take them into space and perhaps colonize Mars.

“Maybe we should worry about not ruining this Earth,” notes Einar, with humor, but then adds that they don’t want to make art that preaches, acknowledging that they too travel on planes and use technology with the rest of us.

“We’re careful not to exclude ourselves and try to come up with some sort of an ivory tower. We’re not saying that we have answers, but I think art can be about helping with the questions so that we can reflect on our own actions.”

That dark humor in their art aids in critiquing without necessarily preaching. “Humor is also necessary for coping with the realities of a human condition,” says Jamex. “It’s important to make light of things and not tread so heavy mentally because we’re limited. We have to have humility in how we take it all in. You have to laugh sometimes.”