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The title of one of the exhibitions on view at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood is oddly grand, vague, and somewhat misleading, all at the same time. "A View of the Contemporary: Latin American Artists" features more than three dozen highly diverse works by 25 artists from eight countries. Taken individually some of the pieces are quite striking, while others don't quite click -- just what we've come to expect from most groupshows.
But the show as a whole left me feeling even more dissatisfied than the most uneven group shows. After examining the catalog a bit more closely, I began to see why. The works have been culled from a larger traveling exhibition called "Latin American Artists," which was first assembled by curator Carol Norman of East Tennessee State University nearly two years ago, and 11 of the artists originally included have been omitted from what's on display at the Art and Culture Center.
"The show does not pretend to be an all-inclusive survey of contemporary Latin American art, but is presented as a taste of its incredible diversity," Norman writes in her forward to the catalog for the original exhibition. She goes on to explain, "Rather than select a particular theme or representative look, we have collected a varied body of work without a significant visual common denominator."
Fine. So the show isn't meant to be all-inclusive. But couldn't it be at least a little more representative? More than half of the pieces are by Cuban and Argentinean artists, with another dozen or so from Mexican and Puerto Rican artists. The remaining handful of works are by artists from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Colombia (misspelled as "Columbia" both in the catalog and on the museum wall). That leaves the seven countries of Central America completely unrepresented. As for South America, focusing on 3 out of 13 countries barely scratches the surface of that vast continent. (The original traveling exhibition was slightly broader, including works by artists from Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay.)
And while I'm quibbling, let me point out that while the West Indies are technically Latin American, it's not unusual to think of the cultures of the Caribbean countries as having more in common with one another than with those of Central and South America. Norman seems to have anticipated that concern. "We use 'Latin American Artists' as a broad term," she writes, "no more descriptive of the particular than 'European Artists' or 'North American Artists.' We include artists who currently live in Latin America, others who are originally from Central and South America but reside in the United States; and artists who were born and/or raised here but maintain close identification with their ancestralhomes."
Very well, then. Let's take the curator at her word and move on to the art. The show offers a handful of fairly traditional paintings on canvas or wood and a comparable number of photographs and photo collages, with a smattering of prints and a drawing or two. But the work, in general, is heavily weighted toward multimedia constructions and sculptures. The paintings run the gamut. The least impressive (and most obvious) is The Last Rafter, by Cuba's Julio Antonio, a large, garish image of a creature that looks more like an alien escapee from an episode of The XFiles than a human, painted in ghoulish greens, grays, and blacks accented by a bit of bright yellow. The best is "A" From Mar de la Furia (Sea of Fury), by Lydia Rubio, also of Cuba, who conjures up the plight of refugees with a sleekly painted image of a ship in the latter stages of burning at sea. It's painted on a square wooden panel, with the image enclosed by a circle with the legend "Aug.1995, Straits of Florida, Marquesas Keys." Rubio captures the look and feel of raging flames especiallywell.
Somewhere in between these two extremes are two pictures by Argentineans. Rebeca Mendoza's The Cross consists of a simple wooden frame and, recessed within it, another frame surrounding a canvas painted with a cross so stylized that the image approaches abstraction. María Gnecco's Pájaros Mecánicos de Obatala (Mechanical Birds of Obatala) is a large, unframed canvas divided into eight panels, each featuring one of the metallic titlecreatures.
Of the photos, only the black-and-white Nude XII and Nude LXII, by Elizabeth Cerejido of Cuba, stand out, with their luminous bodies almost swallowed up by the inky black of the background. Puerto Rican mixed-media artist Gloria Rodriguez contributes three photo collages that come across as halfhearted and dated, while two large, untitled photos by the Venezuelan couple Allen and Teresa Diehl reach for artiness with blurry focusing and washed-out colors.
With a couple of exceptions -- the cheesy ceramic Tree of Sustenance by Esperanza Cortés of Colombia and the miniature Duane Hanson knockoff La Gorda Del Changuito (Fat Woman With Shopping Cart) by Argentinean Betina Sor -- the show's most exciting pieces venture into three dimensions. Heavy Toys, by Eduardo Daniel Fiorda of Argentina, is a set of five makeshift helicopters assembled from odds and ends of metal, including screws, bits of pipe, and sparkplugs. They're simultaneously whimsical and mildly sinister. (It would be great fun to see them displayed alongside Mechanical Birds of Obatala.)
To judge from a couple of wonderfully simple metal sculptures, minimalism is alive and well in Latin America, or at least in Argentina. For My Car, Carolina Sardi, yet another Argentinean, summons up the title object with nothing more than a long, thin metal rod and a set of wheels perched on a white rectangular platform and propped against the wall. Libertad, Libertad, Libertad (Freedom, Freedom, Freedom), also by Sardi, uses a stark, six-sided metal structure suspended at about eye level to convey a deeply ambiguous notion of freedom. The bars imply a cage, but they're skewed enough to hint that escape is possible, a suggestion subtly reinforced by the way the piece hangs free to shift in the air currents.
Two other women artists, Karina Chechik of Argentina and María Brito of Cuba, put boxy shapes to good use. Chechik's The Last Dialogue is a sort of triptych of three wooden boxes, the center one containing five glass jars, the other two containing photographs, all three blanketed with passages (in Spanish) from the classic novel Rayuela (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar. Brito's Old Cabinet With Jar is just what the title says, with 13 wooden blocks painted with human facial features arrayed on three levels of black shelves inside. Neither artist achieves quite the resonance of, say, Joseph Cornell's famous boxes, but both get surprising mileage out of their pared-down constructions.
Cuba's Juan-Si works with more complicated constructions. His Tread Mill starts with a metal box studded with screws and nails, then adds a central image in which an inverted map of Cuba is bordered by strips of squares from a Scrabble board. The piece is finished off with a black metal frame from which a movable wheel extends. On the outside of the wheel are panels reading tener (Spanish for "to have"), while inside are panels reading ser ("to be"); together they neatly encapsulate a range of existential dilemmas.
A similarly ambitious piece is Domestica by Jorge Pineda of the Dominican Republic. The piece consists of nine hinged, wall-mounted, wooden panels, each of which resembles "an aplastero, a paddle-shape apparatus found in Dominican kitchens and used to flatten plantains for frying," according to the catalog. A letter from the title is painted on the outside of each panel, which, when opened, reveals an image inside. Under the O, for example, is a crudely sketched woman's head, painted in black on hot pink, with electrical tape over her mouth. Under the E is another woman's head, her eyes gouged out of the wood. A male torso set against a bright yellow background under the C is likewise mutilated, scissors embedded inchest.
This unsettling piece can be read in a variety of ways, which is part of its fascination. The initial impression that Domestica is a feminist statement gives way to broader interpretations when you come across the panels featuring male imagery; perhaps the work is a commentary on domestic arrangements in general. The catalog informs us that the title also refers to domestic workers and their traditional subservience to the people for whom theywork.
Aside from the ideas it evokes, Domestica is a sneakily clever work that challenges assumptions about the way art should be displayed and perceived. Because its disturbing imagery is concealed behind closed "doors," we're forced to breach the usual space that exists between viewer and art; we literally have to reach into the piece for it to make sense. This subversion of museum protocol alone makes the exhibition worth the price of admission.