Erratic Offerings In Hispanic Exhibits

Kenneth Baker
San Francisco Chronicle

A rash of recent exhibitions has brought to light the work of “Hispanic” American artists. (More later about the problems with this term.)
A major touring survey titled “Hispanic Art in the United States: 30 Contemporary Painters and Sculpture” is at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through April 16 (after which it travels to the Brooklyn Museum).
A show of “Caribbean Festival Arts” was organized recently by the St. Louis Art Museum. The catalog, co-published with the University of Washington Press, is a useful publications on the subjects.
In the Bay Area there are two shows of work by artists of Latin American and Mexican-American descent.
At the Oakland Museum, “Mano a Mano,”organized by the Art Museum of Santa Cruz County and curator Rolando Castellon of the Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery at the University of California at Santa Cruz, surveys the art of 16 people working in the Bay Area.

The Triton Museum’s “Expressiones Hispanas 88/89,” which has already been to Texas, Colorado and Los Angeles, collects single works by each of 50 artists from all over the United States. It will go on to Taos, N.M., and Miami.

It is all to good that these shows have been discriminated against by art world institutions, inclusion in shows like this has got to be a boost.

But we ought to be wary of believing that justice has been done, except by chance. When a trend develops- even if it’s a trend we’re glad to see- the reasons for it are more likely to lie in the nature of
the institutions involved than in their public declarations of purpose.

Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment and outline a cynical view of the situation.

Art world professionals who specialize in contemporary art are under constant pressure to keep the right tempo of novelty going in exhibition programs. Meanwhile, as museums lose their independence from the
vested interest of corporate sponsors and government funding bureaucracies, they are under pressure to respect the business values of art at the expense of its aesthetic and intellectual significance.

The effect of all this promotional smog in which things stand out as meaningful only as long as they are in the limelight, and it falls to publicists (and critics willing to behave like publicists) to forge connections
between art and the lives of those who see it. Needless to say, those connections grow ever more arbitrary in consequence.

As critic Roger Fry caricatures the state of affairs: “Not since the mannerists late-16th century, and
certainly not since the decadence of fin-de-siecle aestheticism, have art and life been so perfectly independent of each other.”

Let’s suppose Fry is right and museum professionals know it and have no choice but to work within the circumstances. Where might they turn to find art that looks and feels as if its connection is genuine?
To outsiders, minority artists, who have not “suffered” -or benefitted by- the artistically deadening effects of professionalism.

Small wonder, if this is how things work, that exhibitions of minority art work, always seem to be on (or over) the verge of fleshing out some stereotype. The stereotypical view of “Hispanic” art associates it with jazzy color, folk-art directness, fantasy and possibly violence.

“Mano a Mano” helps to break down this stereotype (even though it includes works that appear to conform to it). “Expresiones Hispanicas” does not.

“Expresiones Hispanicas” is a of largely undistinguished work in which your eye is constantly snagged by the logos of the show’s corporate sponsors, a brewer of dishwater beer and a respected South Bay
There are few bright spots here- the works by Louis LeRoy, Elena Presser and Daniel Lechon, for instance-
but the show’s cumulative effect is dispiriting.

Terminology reflects the curatorial issues at another level. “Hispanic” is not a good term for linking the
heritage of people from Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. It echoes little more than
the history of European colonialism. Even the term “minority” is rapidly losing the statistical meaning it once had. The only answer to these terminological quandaries may be not to get fixated on catch words but to let them be loose and use loosely.

Whatever, their agendas, exhibitions of so-called minority art do serve to refresh basic questions of criticism. They make us ask on what basis we judge works of art, and whether the criteria we contrive are tinged with unexamined prejudices.

“Mano a Mano” is one of the most successful exhibitions of its kind that I’ve seen, though the caliber of the work is very erratic. Its merit lies simply in showing that art by people of Latin American and
Mexican-American background cab be as good, bad and mediocre, as self-involved and open-hearted, as art by anybody else.

Part of what makes the good art good (here as elsewhere) is that it sets and clarifies terms in which it can be evaluated. The weak work just won’t hold you.

For example, there is no standard I know by which to show that Eduardo Carrillo’s “Las Tropicanos” (1975) is a knockout painting.

You have to enter into, to let your attention drift into its nightmare space, past the towering nudes, the giant iguana and the skeleton acrobatics who’ve stacked themselves into a pyramid, and up into the night
sky where a spiky UFO floats like a hanging lamp.

When you regain your composure, you know you’ve seen a great illusionist at work. You can check the details and see that Carrillo has his skills completely under control. (And you don’t need an expert to tell
you what a sad falling off is Carrillo’s most recent picture.)

The range of styles in “Mano a Mano” is exhilarating. There is everything from color field abstraction by Robert Gonzales to the anti-imperialist mural by Daniel Galvez, from Carmen Lomas Garza’s memories of
Texas childhood to Rupert Garcia’s nightmares of combat.

Some of the most convincing pieces are amongst the quietest. I’m thinking of the poetic abstractions of Mayan motifs by Manuel Villamor and several “Scenes from Father’s Bone Scan” by Ann Garcia


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