Site Unseen

In the lush coastal jungle of Careyes, Mexico, the curator Lauri Firstenberg finds a virgin landscape for contemporary art. W‘s arts and culture director pays a visit.

The library with the Careyes logo on the roof, at Tigre del Mar.
Photographer: John Messinger

It’s rainy season in Careyes, Mexico, and the muddy jungle roads are difficult to navigate, even in a Jeep. Eyeing a tangle of trees and brush, Viviana Dean, the director of the new Careyes Art Foundation and the area’s so-called fixer, radios her boyfriend, who’s in the car behind. “Diego,” she commands. “Grab your machete!” Her take-charge attitude delights Lauri Firstenberg, 41, the foundation’s first curator. “Viviana,” Firstenberg exclaims from the backseat. “You’re such a badass!”

No slouch herself, Firstenberg is known for her ability to get difficult projects off the ground and into public view. As the founder of LAXART, an alternative space and public art program in Los Angeles that has shown works on billboards and freeways and nudged the careers of such stars as Mark Bradford and Alex Israel, she’s one of the key players shaping the city’s contemporary art scene. “She looks out at the landscape and uses the whole city as a platform for art,” says Israel, whose first sculpture and public work was commissioned by Firstenberg. “And she’s able to rally energy around people who are unknown.” In 2012, Firstenberg was a co-curator of the first Los Angeles biennial in collaboration with the Hammer -Museum and was also codirecting LAXART and the Getty’s blockbuster Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival.

Now Firstenberg hopes to do in Careyes what she has done in Los Angeles: give artists the means to generate works that are responsive to their environment. Traveling to Careyes as needed, she will select artists for the foundation’s residency program, which was sparked by the idea that the place itself is a muse. Launched this past summer with the Mexico City–based artist Artemio, who worked with local children to create a film about a shipwreck, the residency offers artists studio and exhibition space, engagement with kids in neighboring villages, and exposure to what Firstenberg calls “a glorious landscape,” likely to provoke ambitious new work.

Firstenberg’s initiation into this quixotic fantasyland, in 2011, readily convinced her of the power that lay in nature and in the enormous outdoor sculptures so integral to Careyes’s eccentric identity. Today, after Diego clears the way with his machete, we head through the jungle to the largest of them: La Copa del Sol (Cup of the Sun), a gigantic concrete bowl that sits on a strip of land jutting into the Pacific. “Retro-futuristic,” Firstenberg calls this 2006 ode to womankind as she climbs the rickety ladder, 35 feet to the top. Spanning 88 feet in diameter, Copa has hundreds of tiny diamond-shaped windows that allow the setting sun to glow through.

Like nearly everything else here, Copa was designed by Careyes’s founder, Gian Franco Brignone, an Italian banking heir–turned–entrepreneur–aesthete who, in 1968, purchased almost eight miles of spectacular coastline after spotting its beach, jungle, and vertiginous cliffs from a Cessna. In short order, Brignone left his wife and kids in Paris to embark on a Robinson Crusoe–like quest to create a boho-luxe, eco-minded Eden for the international jetset. His pals the Fiat scion Gianni Agnelli, Prince Egon von Fürstenberg, and the financier James Goldsmith were among the first guests, lured by Careyes’s anything-goes lifestyle, unparalleled views, and bungalows on the beach.

At 87, Brignone still maintains his grip on the resort, limiting development (there are no marinas, gas stations, or name-brand shops), funding a turtle sanctuary and wetlands preserve, and dreaming up sculptures, including his tomb in the mountains. In recent years he has added a gallery designed by his daughter, Emanuela Cattaneo Adorno, who is an architect, and a polo club run by his son Giorgio. There is also a beachside restaurant, and a hotel that Brignone sold to the Mexican billionaire Roberto Hernández, who recently commissioned the artist Jorge Pardo to create a land work in the Yucatán.

Beyond its unobstructed views and the winsome babes that Brignone père has always had at his side, Careyes is all about the riotously painted villas discreetly dotting its cliffs. Their curving walls and thatched roofs give way to enormous open-air rooms. Serving as the template for them is Brignone’s own quarters, the bold blue Casa Mi Ojo, which was inspired by Gloria Guinness’s Acapulco villa and built in collaboration with the architect Marco Aldaco in 1975. There’s a decidedly James Bond–meets–Gilligan’s Island vibe to the place. You dine beneath a giant thatched cone supported by columns of palm tree trunks and quickly become mesmerized by the suspended bridge that hangs 88 feet over the waves and connects Brignone’s house to a rocky islet. Brignone’s mystical-mindedness is also built into Tigre del Mar, another compound he codesigned. A giant eye sculpture separates one of the pools from the beach, and leaning against an electric blue building is a ladder that climbs high into the sky. There is even a cave into which you descend to reach a dining room by the sea—as bats fly screeching overhead.

Tigre del Mar is now occupied by Gian Franco’s son Filippo, who, along with his siblings, decided that the best way to perpetuate their father’s legacy—“to complete his vision,” as Giorgio explains—was to create an organization that would pump in new ideas. Founded in 2013, the Careyes Foundation oversees programs for art, ecology, community education, and health. The art program, overseen by Dean, a longtime Brignone consigliere with an M.F.A. in art history, grew organically. First came the -gallery and plaza, with its open-air projection screen and artist studios. Then came the decision to hire a curator. “The idea is to open Careyes up to other artists’ sensibilities and see what happens, how the place charges them and how they charge the place,” Filippo tells me. The art foundation’s board includes his niece Serena Cattaneo Adorno, the director of the -Gagosian gallery in Paris, and his friend Eugenio Lopez, a -Careyes regular and the founder of the just opened Museo Jumex, in Mexico City. Naturally, these connections raise the question: Will Careyes embrace only bankable artists?

“We’re not interested in a starry name,” Filippo insists. “We want artists who really want to stay at least a month to see what happens to them and their ideas by being immersed in Careyes and working in arts education with local kids.” Firstenberg is the first nonfamily member invited to help shape Careyes’s identity, and other curators may be brought in over the next few years. She and Filippo were introduced by an LAXART board member. “When I chose Lauri, I was told, ‘You didn’t pick the easiest person. She’s very determined about not being commercial,’ ” he says. “That’s why she’s perfect.”

For someone who has made her career finding opportunities for artists outside the usual channels, Firstenberg says, Careyes offers the chance to be free of the constraints she experiences in Los Angeles. “There’s so much open space here and no limitations on what one can do. The opportunity for artists to create something monumental and permanent is rare.”

In the coming year, the filmmaker Adrià Julià, the sculptor Conrad Shawcross, and the painter Mary Weatherford will spend quality time there. “Knowing Mary, she’ll be sitting in front of the rock formations doing live studies for weeks upon weeks,” Firstenberg says. “I can just picture it: ‘the Careyes paintings.’ ”

Firstenberg grew up in Los Angeles, where her father, a rocket scientist, designed parts for Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 and later started the first company to digitize college applications, after seeing his daughter struggle with hers. As Firstenberg pursued her Ph.D. in art history and architecture at Harvard, she worked with the curator Okwui Enwezor on Documenta 11, the international art survey in Kassel, Germany, and at the nonprofit Artists Space in New York before returning home in 2003 to be the assistant director of the MAK Center at Schindler House. In Los Angeles, she found an active museum and gallery scene but virtually no incubators for experimental work by the growing community of artists and curators who, she recalls, “were no longer running to New York like they used to.”

Now in its eighth year, LAXART (the X stands for “exhibitions”) not only spots talent but also drums up funds and -audiences for projects by both young and midcareer artists. It has shown the trailer for Alex Israel’s first video Web series, 2010’s Rough Winds—inspired by stereotypes of affluent hipsters—on a video-tron along Sunset Boulevard and coproduced Jedediah Caesar’s monumental resin-coated trash sculpture, 2009’s Gleaners Stone, which was sitting in a transitional neighborhood until the sanitation department hauled it off to the dump. (It was later reinstalled.) Beginning this month, Sam Falls, another artist on a hot streak, will stage a solo photo show at LAXART to document the effects of nature on his first “public” sculptures: wind chimes hung in the woods in remote locations.

Firstenberg’s secret fantasy about Careyes is that the foundation will one day acquire work by the artists it hosts and build a museum in the jungle. “I like the idea of an art pilgrimage,” she says. For now, its website will disseminate projects to a wider audience while Careyes positions itself as a magnet for the international art crowd post–Zona Maco, the annual contemporary art fair in Mexico City in February. “We have the energy and the contacts,” Filippo says. “Careyes is a work in a progress.”

As we drive back from the Copa, Firstenberg points out a mural of jungle animals by Kenny Scharf on the facade of a roofless abandoned house. While a guest of Filippo’s in 2012, Scharf had been inspired to turn the structure into a Pop surrealist work and agreed to return to paint on the interior walls with a group of schoolkids. When Firstenberg’s 5-year-old daughter, Edie Yvonne, visited Careyes and spotted the Scharf on this stretch of dirt road, she remembered a work by the artist she’d seen in L.A. “Edie Yvonne said, ‘What’s that doing here?’ ” Firstenberg says, laughing. “And I thought, Exactly! That’s the response I want people to have.”

Photos: Site Unseen

La Copa del Sol.

Photographer: John Messinger

Lauri Firstenberg stands atop the eccentric sculpture.

Photographer: John Messinger

The suspension bridge connecting Mi Ojo, Gian Franco Brignone’s house, to a rocky isle.

Photographer: John Messinger

The library with the Careyes logo on the roof, at Tigre del Mar.

Photographer: John Messinger

The Brignone family, 2005. Courtesy of Collection Foundation Careyes.

An abandoned house, painted by Kenny Scharf.

Photographer: John Messinger