Just Like the Rest of Us | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Just Like the Rest of Us

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.)

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.

As in the "Raíces Encontradas" show, most of the artists reference their heritage only glancingly. And again, the art varies widely in quality. Two Argentine artists who apparently collaborate under the moniker Big Design contribute a huge, ghastly acrylic called Turbulent Sky that's a heavy-handed image of the World Trade Center towers enveloped in smoke. Some flat-out awful paintings seem set in some garish environment that's equal parts disco and New Age, and a pair of large still lifes of fruit render their subject matter amazingly unappetizing. But then there's also the satisfying work of Lilly Elasmar, a Colombian whose delicate touch gives her big pastels of bell peppers an immediacy that's a bracing antidote to those washed-out strawberries and pears.

Guatemalan artist Armando Chacón is one of the few who forge notable links to their pasts. Two of his three oils are earthy translations of his family name and his wife's name into Mayan hieroglyphs. Patricia Maggie of Peru alludes to her homeland with The Andes, a serene oil painting of a woman sitting on a pier and staring across a lake at mountains in the distance. I'm not quite sure what to make of a trio of big, mixed-media works by Colombian Hugo Bautista-Sandoval, who seems to be heir to Salvador Dalí by way of Magic Realism. All three pieces feature empty white "robes" collaged onto the canvas, along with dense, jarring imagery that looks like something torn from someone's dreams. However ambiguous their content, these pieces at least strive to piece together a narrative.

What makes these two shows so unsatisfying, ultimately, is that their adherence to the idea of Hispanic heritage is at best tenuous. Take away that misleading theme and you're left with a lot of art that's as varied as that in the average group exhibition. As I complained about that Gay Pride Month show at the library last year, "Celebration of Hispanic Heritage" and "Raíces Encontradas" seem to want it all: to have the artists' work judged on its own merits, aside from any ethnic identification, even as the work is included because of such a link. That hardly does justice either to the individual artists or to whatever group identity they may claim.