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What's in a Name?

MAM's "Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art," an exhibit curated by Elizabeth Armstrong and Victor Zamudio-Taylor that landed here from San Diego, presents works by artists from Latin America who negotiate contemporary global trends within their own local traditions.

But this is not a witty or humorous label. To categorize these important works as "ultrabaroque" and "post-Latin American" is over the top. According to Armstrong's essay in the catalog, the show's title springs from the curators' frustration with the reception of Latin American art north of the Rio Grande.

In order to convince the gringos that contemporary Latin American art is on equal footing with modern and postmodern traditions in Europe and the United States, a team of art historians, curators, and critics got to work. In the face of the art establishment's oversimplification, the curators' strategy is to come up with terms like "ultrabaroque" and "post-Latin American" to represent promising Latin American contemporary trends. In other words, it's all our fault! Let's dispel neo-Colonial reticence with self-deprecation and hyperbolic exaggeration. Have they looked back enough?

Modernism arrived late in Latin America and was consumed by its national elites. And for the modern masters, it was not an easy task to absorb styles from Paris and negotiate those trends with meaningful regional vocabularies back home. But some learned valuable lessons. Artists combined the primitive (as in Wilfredo Lam and Rufino Tamayo), the indigenous and the popular (as in Tarsila do Amaral and the Mexican muralists), the ornamental and the landscape (as in Amelia), and the fantastic (as in Roberto Matta).

Forward six decades later and the problem persists. In spite of recent multiculturalist trends, Latin America is still subservient to the validating power of art institutions of Europe and the United States.

Baroque is a heavy and worn-out stereotype that was accepted by some Latin American artists and intellectuals as a shibboleth for a style, a way of life that is rich and strange and riddled with impossible paradoxes: grand, flamboyant, and macabre. But we're not in the 1960s. These days, baroque also carries an element of bigotry. It hints at enredo, "a mess," a cultural malaise brought on by political and economic underdevelopment. These clichés relate to the cautious reception being given to recent Latin American art.

I ask -- given the curators' penchant for prefixes -- which measurement of "post" Latin America has left Latin America behind: development and lasting civic institutions? Economic parity and gender equality?

Let the art do the defining: first, Miguel Calderon (the wunderkind of the Mexican art scene). This art is relevant because it borrows from bad taste, political incorrectness, and Mexican pop in novel ways. With Calderon, what you get is what you see. The show features a photo series, but don't miss his quasi-anarchist video of a mariachi band delivering off-the-cuff lyrics in a delightful vaudevillian mockery of itself.

The works of Ruben Ortiz-Torres and José Antonio Hernandez-Diez mine particular local references of the urban disenfranchised of Latin America and of ethnic groups here. Los Angeles-based Ortiz-Torres strikes me as socially and politically involved. His baseball hats Malcolm Mex Cap and MuLAto hint at African-American and Chicano ethnocentrism. Mutating Painting from Impure Beauty is a color-shifting metal strip that I take as an admission of the artist's own enjoyment of the capitalist culture he evaluates.

Hernandez-Diez explores the Caracas hoods with conceptual poise. His landmark is the skateboard, that ubiquitous adolescent urban toy, which he keeps metamorphosing. Kant cleverly stacks four different tennis shoes whose ostentatious colorful brands yield the philosopher's name. These are the emblems of youth caught in the shantytown predicaments of any Third World metropolis: craving consumption in a landscape of utter poverty.

I had fun with Meyer Vaisman's turkeys; they're bombastic enough, but a Pietá-like piece titled Barbara Fisher/Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy is the real winner. This is a sculpture of the artist's former therapist, life-size, wrapped in pink tulle and holding, presumably, a policeman's uniform.

Brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre's The Sources: Virgins and Crosses is a caustic critique disguised as pious offering, a colorful array of vaginas and crosses each bearing their proprietors' names.

Concurring themes transpire in Adriana Varejão's work, which skillfully exposes the violence of Colonial rule. In Meat à la Taunay, Varejão copies Nicolas-Antoine Taunay, a French painter who lived in Brazil in the 17th Century. She rips open a Taunay copy (as if the painting is made of flesh) and proceeds to serve the torn pieces on plates. In her Carpet-Style Tilework in Live Flesh, we get an implosion of metaphors: White and bluish arabesque tile decoration is gouged open to expose bloody viscera.

I enjoyed Colombian Maria Fernanda Cardoso's installation Cemetery-Vertical Garden, the installation of fake lilies at the show's entrance dealing with loss and the artificial; and the almost metaphysical work of Brazilian Valeska Solares. Her room environment Sinners consists of seven slabs of beeswax on pews, bearing the traces of people who once knelt there. By the way, those peculiar long pieces resembling reptiles are also hers.

Instead of the curators' choice of description, I prefer to see these artists as recontextualizing regional and interregional contemporary popular Latin American themes -- whether metaphysical, technological, or sociopolitical critiques. Unlike pop art (which generally referred to symbols of capitalist consumption in the here and now), Latin American popular refers to low forms of art-making and kitsch, along with historic, vernacular, and sacramental explorations.

In spite of the problems of cultural identity, Latin American artists are succeeding in mapping out new territories. It will always be difficult to disrupt conventional boundaries between high and low, abstraction and figuration, art and craft, landscape and history, and art and propaganda.

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Alfredo Triff

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