Just Like the Rest of Us

"Hispanic heritage" is hard to find at ArtServe and Gallery Six By Michael Mills

While the rest of us were preoccupied with hurricanes, two industrious public galleries in Fort Lauderdale managed to assemble and mount roughly concurrent exhibitions commemorating Hispanic Heritage Month. The shows have similar strengths and weaknesses. The larger one, "Celebration of Hispanic Heritage," in the gallery at ArtServe, includes more than 70 pieces by two dozen or so artists. The smaller "Raíces Encontradas," on display in Gallery Six at the Broward County Main Library, is a more modest affair, with just over three dozen pieces by ten artists. There is no overlap between the two.

I wish I could report that these shows (or even one of them) address, in any significant way, what it means to be Hispanic in America or in South Florida today. By and large, they don't. And since no specific organizers are credited at either venue, no introductions are posted, and no exhibition handouts are provided, we don't know whose vision, or lack thereof, is being presented.

Part of the problem is that the term Hispanic is such a sweeping designation. The Census Bureau, which estimates that nearly 14 percent of the American population is Hispanic, identifies Hispanics as "U.S. residents who trace their roots to Spain, Mexico, and the Spanish-speaking nations of Central America, South America and the Caribbean." The bureau also tags Hispanics as "the nation's largest race or ethnic minority," a distinction that seems largely geographical. (Consider, for the sake of argument, that no comparable term exists for people who trace their roots to, say, France and its former colonies.)

Works by Hugo Bautista-Sandoval and at ArtServe
Colby Katz
Works by Hugo Bautista-Sandoval and at ArtServe
Works by Francisco Shevat at ArtServe
Works by Francisco Shevat at ArtServe
Through October 8 at ArtServe, 1350 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-462-9191; through October 16 at Gallery Six, Broward County Main Library, Sixth Floor, 100 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale, 954-357-7444.

The background of Hispanic Heritage Month seems similarly tied to geography. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was authorized by Congress to establish a week in September as National Hispanic Heritage Week. Two decades later, the week became a month -- specifically, September 15 through October 15, a time frame selected for its historical significance. Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador all celebrate their independence on September 15, with Mexico marking its sovereignty on September 16 and Chile on September 18.

Defining Hispanic in a cultural context can be even more problematic. The Boca Raton Museum of Art wrestled with the implications two years ago with an excellent exhibition called "Reality and Figuration: The Contemporary Latin American Presence," prompting museum Executive Director George S. Bolge to acknowledge the slipperiness of the term, "in that it covers populations that are so diverse and cultural traditions and practices that differ so widely."

Many of the artists in that show emphasized a group identity, sometimes inadvertently, by exploring common denominators rather than differences, what Bolge characterized as "the shared experience of colonization" and "a degree of unity of language and religion."

By contrast, most of the artists included in "Celebration of Hispanic Heritage" and "Raíces Encontradas" have no such weighty matters on their minds. The only thing intrinsically Hispanic about much of the work here is that it was produced by people who just happen to fit that Census Bureau definition. The "theme" of these shows can be seen as a convenient reason for grouping pieces of art that might not otherwise belong together or have much of anything in common. (Last year's "United and Proud: An Exhibition in Celebration of Gay and Lesbian Pride Month," also at the library's Gallery Six, suffered from a similar schizophrenia.)

All this is not to say that the art in these two exhibitions lacks interest. There's fine work in both. The "Raíces Encontradas" show, for instance, includes a pair of graceful bronze-and-wood sculptures by Luis Eduardo García Contreras: Esperanza (Hope), in which a heavy-set woman leans on a window frame suspended in space, and Soñadora (Dreamer), a wooden hoop almost 30 inches in diameter that cradles a bronze figurine of a topless, sleeping woman.

The only other male artist here, Carlos José Tirado-Yepes, works in a tantalizing medium identified as "sand pigments and acrylic over wood." He appears to have molded the sand-and-pigment mixture over the wood and let it dry to form a hard, textured substance that might be described as a distant cousin of papier-mâché. For Tic Tac Toe, he uses nine individually mounted panels for a 54-inch-square suggestion of the primitive game, and in Hanging, he re-creates the folds of a piece of cloth draped on one of two pegs driven into a grainy, mottled surface.

Much of the remaining art in this little show is competently executed but also a bit bland: run-of-the-mill portraiture and landscapes, canvases inexplicably marked with Asian ideograms, chunky abstract sculptures in bronze. The standouts feature the highly accomplished realism of Diana Alcaraz de Negrón and María Teresa Mesa. Negrón hints at the experience of exile with a simple composition of small boats called Añoranzas de mi Tierra (Yearning of My Birthplace). Mesa's Paisaje Colombiano (Colombian Landscape) also suggests nostalgia for a faraway place, although her real strength lies in her feel for still lifes, as in Uchuvas, a radiant oil image of some shiny orange fruits and their veined, papery husks.

The "Celebration of Hispanic Heritage" show at ArtServe is more ambitious but also more erratic. Here, there are little postings with tidbits of information, including country of origin, about most of the artists; there's no info on a handful of others aside from their names. South America is well-represented, with two artists each from Chile, Peru, and Venezuela and four each from Argentina and Colombia (consistently misspelled as Columbia). Two hail from Cuba and one each from Guatemala, Honduras, and Puerto Rico. The lineup includes no Mexicans, who make up more than two-thirds of American Hispanics; then again, this is South Florida.

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