November/December 2004

more feature articles:

After the Culture Wars
Censorship‚s many faces
by Richard Meyer

Holiday Reading Supplement


New books add nuance to our view of Latin American art

By Gean Moreno

We would probably not recognize the placeųthe US circa 1990ųwhere a dreadfully misleading conceptų„the Fantasticšųheld a seemingly unshakeable monopoly on how Latin American art was interpreted, exhibited and taught. Pretending to explain the main tendency in work produced in Latin America, the Fantastic in fact repressed more than it revealed. It foregrounded work, mostly paintings, that engaged in a figurative, tropical post-surrealism carrying all the signs of the exoticųlush vegetation, bleeding hearts, luscious fruits, cartoony caudillos. The basic rhetorical effort that accompanied the Fantastic uncritically compared these paintings to the „magic realismš of the Boom writers. Naturally, the definition of what these writers did was one of convenience, latching on to the levitating beauties and 200-year old patriarchs in Garcia Marquez‚ novels but refusing to deal with Borges‚s erudite puzzles, the baroque transvestism/textualism of Severo Sarduy or Manuel Puig‚s investigations of popular culture and its effects. Just as it employed a restrictive reading of Latin American literature, the Fantastic endorsed an atrophied version of its art history that overlooked the long, progressive tradition of geometrical abstraction and paintings that explored the textual underpinnings of the visual. While the Fantastic allowed for comic-grotesque images of dictators, it couldn‚t acknowledge conceptualist efforts that dealt with political repression.

At some point later in the decade, an assault on the Fantastic began. Books like Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art and Criticism from Latin America (edited by Gerardo Mosquera) and exhibitions like „An Experimental Exercise in Freedomš (curated by Rina Carvajal) and „Re-Aligning Vision: Alternative Currents in South American Drawing„ (co-curated by Mari Carmen Rodriguez and Edith Gibson Wolfe) surfaced. The list of these efforts to revise the revisionists continues to grow at a healthy, Malthusean rate. Disturbingly, though, they still focus, for the most part, on debunking the ideological basis of the Fantastic, which lingers on even if the term has been relegated to the dustbin. (Disturbing, because one would expect this argument to be over by now.)

Xul Solar, Jefa (Patroness), 1923, watercolor on paper, set on cardboard (©Fundación Pan Klub-Museo Xul Solar).

The massive tome Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America (Yale University Press/Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2004) by Mari Carmen Ramirez and Hector Olea accompanies an exhibition of the same title, which promises to be one of the most important of its kind. At the beginning of the prologue we learn of this effort‚s adversarial stance: „[In light of] a host of reductive stereotypes that even today characterize accounts of art in the region∑our task is nothing less than a comprehensive challenge to Latin American art‚s no-place in history.š This „no-placeš is recast as a „counter-place from which a critical and timely alternative to the avatars of European culture was elaborated.š The basic argument of the book, which focuses on the 1920s-30s and the decades just after WW II, is that Latin American artists inverted the nihilistic drive of the European avant-garde by turning it into a vehicle to articulate the symbolic imaginary of societies coming of age and, in certain cases, as political praxis. In 453 pages, complemented by a 140-page appendix of original documents and enlisting the help of over a dozen other essayists, Ramirez and Olea present their case through a sophisticated analysis that eschews linear historical presentation.

Using the Adornoesque concept of constellation, Ramirez and Olea present a series of oppositionsųuniversal and vernacular, cryptic and committed, vibrational and stationary, etc. They then introduce disparate artworks that relate in some way to one of the concepts and allow the pieces to create an exchange, thus not only righting a miswritten history but also introducing a curatorial model. At their best these texts introduce Latin American artists in broad contextsųin relation to their immediate realities and to broader modernist tendencies. Hector Olea on Xul Solar and his relationship to Borges and Joyce, his contributions to the post-Dada „verbovovovisualš tradition that finds its apogee in Finnegans Wake, is fascinating. Olea and the late Marta Traba on Luis Felipe Noe and Betariz Gonzalez, respectively, make a case for Latin American pop art as caustic, critical and more than just a reflective surface for a pervasive reification, unlike its North American counterpart. Mari Carmen Ramirez is clear and precise on the difference between Joaquin Torres Garcia‚s use of Pre-Columbian sourcesųhe created a complex, formally innovative semiotic system with themųand the literal „primitivismš of Picasso, Braque and the Mexican Muralists. These texts cast individual figures (or „movementsš) in the vaudeville of Western modernism and simply allow them a piece of real estate on the stage. Some hold on to it better than others, but only in this way can correspondences and differences, beyond the narrow confines of identity, be discerned.

Readings in Latin American Modern Art, edited by Patrick Frank, can be read as an addendum to the appendix of documents in Inverted Utopias. There is little overlap, and there are much-needed sections on major architectural projects and Haitian art. But a reparatory impulse is indisputably the guiding force here. The introduction begins thus: „Latin American modern art still does not get its due.š This opening sets the tone of one‚s reading, but contradicts the tone of the texts, which are for the most part self-assured, if not irreverent and feisty, and well aware of their target and purpose.

Unintended things slip in. Some of the questions that Friedhelm Mennekeo puts to painter Luis Cruz Azaceta regarding the relationship between his „use of color and choice of iconographyš and „Latino aestheticsš give off the stench of the Fantastic. Do „Latino aesthetics,š whatever that could be, include Gego, Helio Oiticica and Meyer Vaismanųartists who function on aesthetic galaxies light years away from Azaceta‚s „color and choice of iconographyš? I can‚t shake the feeling that „Latino aestheticsš has something to do with an Oliver Stone-style pseudo-populist leftism, shamefully condescending in its simplifications. Editing a book of existing material leaves one open to these slips, of course, but Frank could have provided a more informative introduction that mapped out the reasons that have kept modern Latin American art from „getting its due.š Thisųand maybe something about the lack of imagesųis the strongest criticism that can be directed at this book, tempered, however, by the fact that Readings is invaluable as a source of material previously (for the most part) unavailable in English.

Questioning the Line: Gego in Context (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2003) approaches the Venezuelan sculptor Gego from multiple directions. Iris Peruga draws attention to the dialectic that Gego maintained between the rational and the intuitive, as she goes through the different bodies of work that the Venezuelan artist produced. Her boldest claim for the work, especially the „Reticulareaš series, is that it „demonstrate[s] an obvious change in the way space is understood.š These sculptures are not constructed so that one can enter and view them, in a sense, from within, which becomes the central tenet of installation a decade later. Luis Perez Oramas‚s reading of Gego is even more radical, considering her work one of the „privileged models of Latin American Modernismš as it twists the „themes of Modernist geometric abstraction, producing deviations and figures entrenched in Latin American realities.š Gego‚s work inverts the „modernist ideology of forms that systematically∑ aspire to a categorical universalityš and irrevocable autonomy by activating the traces or effects produced on/in the sites where it is placed. Shadows, for instance, play a central role in her constructions, and as shadows depend on an architectural situation and the light cast on the object, Gego‚s pieces are never finished, universal or autonomous. Indeterminate and organized by residue or „supplementaryš elements, they enact a legitimate site-specificity and break from other Venezuelan sculptors and from main tenets of Western geometric abstraction.

If Peruga and Perez Oramas zero in on what differentiates Gego as a Latin American sculptor, Guy Brett and Richard Schiff plug her into the larger narratives of modernism. Schiff‚s close reading of Gego‚s materials and how they are assembled reveals how the distinction between vectors (lines with directional force) and vasters (virtual grids) as organizational units is collapsed in her work. This discussion emphasizes Gego‚s deep understanding of modernism, which allows her to rework one of its guiding antinomies. Brett places Gego in a tradition of „force fieldsš: „abstract artworks [that] could be read as cosmic models.š Gego‚s model negotiates between the geometrical and the organic, a „very delicate point of balance between constructive will∑and surrender to an immersion in the organic flux of nature.š Brett locates her, historically speaking, in the vicinity of such disparate artists as Henri Michaux, François Morellet, Lygia Clark and Georges Vantongerloo.

Both Inverted Utopias and Questioning the Line refuse to rely on Lewis Carroll logic (the norm for a long time): they don‚t determine the difference that marks Latin American cultural artifacts a priori and then atrophy its history in order to illustrate the thesis. On the contrary, they show that only when Latin American art is placed on a level discursive field can any real difference or discernible specificity be unearthed and the contributions of its avant-garde be properly regarded, catalogued and appreciated.

GEAN MORENO is a Contributing Editor at ART PAPERS. His two-person exhibition with Pedro Velez is at Galeria Comercial in San Juan until November 23.


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