Identity Crisis

An air of melancholy hangs over much of the work in "Reality and Figuration: The Contemporary Latin American Presence," one of two exhibitions of Hispanic art now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. It's evident in the three acrylic cityscapes by young Cuban artist Gustavo Acosta that greet you...
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An air of melancholy hangs over much of the work in "Reality and Figuration: The Contemporary Latin American Presence," one of two exhibitions of Hispanic art now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. It's evident in the three acrylic cityscapes by young Cuban artist Gustavo Acosta that greet you at the beginning of the show: images of grand, elegant buildings going to seed, the streets surrounding them devoid of people and vehicles.

It's also there in the four monochromatic acrylics by Brazilian Daniel Senise, who paints large, stark images of empty rooms, bare except for simple arches and doorways -- no furnishings, no inhabitants, just ghostly bands of pale earth tones delineating the spaces. Chilean Jorge Tacla too is preoccupied with majestic but empty architecture, public spaces from which the public has vanished. His small but hypnotic Camuflaje N.1. (2002) is a cool-blue rendering of arches and columns and vaulted ceilings painted with oil that looks as weathered as the subject matter. And Guillermo Kuitca, an Argentine painter who also studied theater and film, has two paintings here -- one white-on-blood-red acrylic, the other blood-red-on-white mixed media -- that are almost like reverse images of each other. They could be stage sets or auditoriums, with the paint smeared almost to the point of abstraction -- but again, empty spaces.

The melancholy begins to make sense when you realize that all but two of the ten artists featured in the show, Senise and Kuitca, no longer live and work in their native countries. They're artistic exiles, as Boca Museum Executive Director George S. Bolge explains in his excellent introduction to the exhibition catalog: "This issue of identity, both in association with internal considerations and in terms of the relationship with Europe and the United States, irresolvable as it may be, has remained an important factor for many artists. A persistent sense that the artistic center lies elsewhere has prompted many Latin American artists in this century to continue to seek their models in the metropolitan capitals of the west."

Bolge also makes the point that the very term "Latin America" is more a cultural and political designation than a geographical one, as well as a problematic term "in that it covers populations that are so diverse, and cultural traditions and practices that differ so widely." These differences contrast with what he calls "the shared experience of colonization" and "a degree of unity of language and religion," as well as the struggles for independence seen throughout Latin America.

The artists have responded to this identity crisis by going elsewhere. Most of the ten artists represented here -- all male and all but two in their 40s -- have studied and worked abroad extensively, often in the United States and Europe. Some embrace the traditions they have found, while others reject them.

In other words, their origins in Latin America and their experiences of exile, self-imposed or otherwise, are about all these artists have in common. And the art bears this idea out.

The work of Cuban José Bedia, for instance, strongly resembles tribal art. His three huge, round canvases here, unmounted and tacked to the wall instead, show especially strong Native American influences. And if you make a side trip to the landing on the way to the museum's second floor, away from the main body of the exhibition, you'll see one of those huge canvases -- this one 120 inches in diameter -- with information posted next to it that confirms these influences. Bedia, we learn, has been initiated into the secret rituals of Palo Monte, a religion based on Central African traditions, and in the mid-1980s, he apprenticed with a Lakota Sioux shaman on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.

The second-youngest artist in the show, 43-year-old Julio Galán of Mexico, draws on the spirits of pop art and surrealism for his often-whimsical creations. Several cartoonish dinosaurs appear on the fringes of his Dios Mio (1984), which is otherwise dominated by a female in a flowing dress. El Niño Vampiro (1986) features a world-weary-looking young vampire alongside various doodlings and such religious symbols as a cross and an ankh. Me Moriré de Amor ("I Will Die From Love") (1998) juxtaposes oil painting with collage to haunting effect.

Another of the three Argentines in the show, Daniel Scheimberg, plays tricks on our eyes by painting photorealist images in oil in which the "camera" is out of focus. An untitled beach scene could be set in heat so intense it distorts our vision, while La Estancia (2000) offers a three-tiered outdoor fountain that seems tantalizingly close to coming into focus only to resist the most intent squinting.

As Bolge admits in his catalog introduction, this eclectic show "is not conceived as a survey, and certainly does not pretend to any completeness. The idea, in a sense, has been to create an exciting show that offers a necessarily selective and partial, rather than comprehensive view." In that, the museum has succeeded.

A second, smaller show in the museum's north gallery on the first floor serves up another Latin American artist whose work couldn't be more different from that of his contemporaries down the corridor. "Passages: The Paintings of Arturo Rodríguez" features more than two dozen pieces by the 46-year-old Cuban, who lived and worked in Spain before settling in Miami.

There are no bare rooms or empty city streets in Rodríguez's paintings, which are almost always crowded with human beings. Indeed, his characters often seem unanchored, cut loose from their moorings, sometimes even free-floating in space. He's referencing, of course, the balseros, or rafters, who have been among his fellow Cubans who fled their homeland for America.

The artist calls his departure from Cuba, at age 14, as "an irremediable rupture of my identity" that entailed a "deep feeling of alienation, of not belonging anywhere." Clearly, his sense of exile is keener than that of any of the artists featured in "Reality and Figuration," and his unresolved feelings permeate his paintings.

Rodríguez's acknowledged influences are Goya and Velásquez, whose work he saw at the Prado in Spain as a teenager, and Goya's more disturbing works obviously made a deep impression on him. The people in Rodríguez's paintings are invariably distorted in some way -- limbs stretched or twisted in ways nature never intended, heads on backward, bodies entwined as they are in photographs of war atrocities.

There are no hints of stability in a typical Rodríguez picture. Everything is in flux, pulled in conflicting directions. The faces of the humans are blank masks that conceal every emotion except perhaps alienation and resignation.

Another Rodríguez influence is French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who is quoted at the beginning of the exhibition: "One makes oneself a visionary by a long, immense, and reasoned disordering of the senses." The artist has taken this credo to heart, embracing chaos in his imagery. Formal composition and other stylistic concerns take a back seat to a feverish urgency in his "Illuminations" series and in The Boat, both of which pay homage to Rimbaud.

It was an inspired decision on the part of the Boca Museum to run "Reality and Figuration" and "Passages" concurrently. The group show documents the breadth of the response of a young generation of Latin American artists to their simultaneously similar and diverse legacies. The Rodríguez exhibition, by contrast, chronicles the intensity with which a single artist -- of the same generation -- pursues his own personal demons in dramatically different ways. Each show enhances the other.

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