»What the map cuts up, the story cuts across.«

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Mexico City Scapes

The photography of PJ Rountree

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Rounding up our month down Mexico City way, Mario Ballesteros’ final report praises at the documentary images of photographer PJ Rountree for capturing the “condensed beauty” of this tumultuous city of “sensory overload”.

The entire city smells like badwater and fried masa and damp earth and charred chiles and detergent and dead animal and knock-off Dior. A “light snack” here translates into tacos with three kinds of meat and melted cheese, drenched in two different salsas, and jammed with cilantro, onion, and pineapple; plus a squeeze of lime on top. Your typical Mexico City vernacular marketing strategy would consist of plastering a façade from top to bottom with loud lettering and blasting announcements from speakers to the sounds of reggaeton. Morning papers prominently feature voluptuous, half-naked women next to gruesome yellow-press portraits of gory crimes.

Permanent sensory overload has made most chilangos (Mexico City residents) numb to almost any kind of stimulus. PJ Rountree is one of those rare contemporary artists that manages to throw himself fully and uninhibitedly into the contemporary mess of Mexico City, to bring back a jolt of awe where most would just remain weary.

The writer Daniel Hernández describes Rountree as an artist “who makes work about the news, about the city, and about color and shapes. That's about as plainly as I can put it.”  This breaking down of thick, complex urban combos full of references and relationships into digestible bits that condense beauty and meaning is part of what makes PJ’s work so enticing.

In his series Punto de Reunión Rountree documented the curious bureaucratic designation of “safe spots” where people can gather in case of an earthquake, sometimes in the most improbable spaces. After obsessively photographing the green and white icon scattered throughout the city, Rountree decided to turn it into an apocryphal urban clothing line complete with t-shirts, hats and underwear to be pirated/appropriated by informal vendors.

His sprawling creative forays have also taken him to food. PJ is part of the Pichón collective, a local farm-to-table project that has adopted and recovered a number of chinampas (human-made floating islands dating to Aztec times that are still used to grow food in the few surviving canals that remain in the southern part of the City) to provide fresh produce for their famous pop-up brunches. Or Baba (which stands for spit and also for the slime that oozes out of chopped edible nopal cacti) where he hosts food happenings and builds edible installations with his partner, the former designer turned chef, Kenny Curran.

In his photographs, PJ flattens the visual density of the city into poetically saturated compositions. His work brings to mind the constructivist collages of Rodchenko and Popova, with their unlikely cityscapes and accumulations of buildings, infrastructure and people (minus the faith in progress and heroics). Snapshots that testify to the fact that every inch of the DF is piled with tension and potential wonderment.

– Mario Ballesteros

See more images from Pj Rountree here

Now read uncube issue No. 23: Mexico City

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