Santeria reference? Check. Dual-language panels? Check. Diego Rivera? Check. A new art exhibition courts Latin America with good intentions and ends up feeling like a promising blind date.
Romancing the unknown is a daunting undertaking, particularly when sensitivity is trending upward and the risk of offending is super high. By all accounts, The Body Says, I Am a Fiesta: The Figure in Latin American Art should sit well with visitors. Organized by the Norton Museum of Art, the exhibition hits all the right notes, avoids overwhelming with text and includes paintings, photography and sculpture that mostly resist the stereotypical.
Split between the first and second floors, it serves an assortment of figural interpretations on the human body and highlights external pressures acting upon it. It is surprisingly restrained in color, despite featuring more than 40 artworks by 28 artists active in the United States and Latin America between the 1930s and 2010s.
The stained-glass treatment on an abstract painting immediately gives away the name of its creator before we learn the title of the work. The bold thick lines breaking up the figure of a woman into multiple planes spells out Amelia Peláez del Casal. Mujer (Woman) presents its sitter at a colonial-style balcony and against a red, yellow and green decorative background while she holds a bird and a flower. Flora and fauna were favorite subjects of this Cuban modernist painter, who gave modernity a colorful Caribbean twist. Peláez’s signature style evolved after studying abroad and being introduced to European avant-garde styles and artists. Hers is one of 12 pieces housed on the first floor.
A 1932 lithograph by Mexican muralist and caricaturist José Clemente Orozco illustrates the spectrum of emotions associated with not having a job. Unemployed depicts four laborers struggling to absorb the bad news: they either have just heard there is no more work or this is one of many afternoons they will return home empty-handed. Their reactions range from anger to sadness to profound despair, as embodied by the man covering his face with his hands. Orozco was living in the United States at the time he made this print and found parallels between the Great Depression and the difficulties of earning a living back home following the Mexican Revolution.
Meanwhile, David Alfaro Siqueiros offers us the clean-cut profile of a proud soldier in a lithograph from 1937. Militar (Soldier) conveys the resolve and discipline of a Spanish Civil War veteran who, aside from a receding hairline and a few wrinkles around the eyes, appears unscathed by the perils of war. He never loses his composure. Siqueiros was intimately familiar with the military enterprise; he served two years as an officer. Compared to the massive politically charged works this radical Mexican muralist is known for, this piece is tamed and simple. It cuts through the noise and heroics of war to give us a brave dignified face.
As any other blanket term, “Latin American art” attempts to capture in a few words the infinite creativity emerging out of widely different countries in the Americas and the Caribbean. It imposes a group hug on nations linked through shared experiences such as poverty and slavery even as they develop individual tendencies. Drawn mostly from the Norton’s permanent collection, The Figure in Latin American Art does a similar number on the 10 countries represented; this time under the pretext of exploring universal notions of the human body. Noticeably absent from the show are Frida Kahlo and Roberto Matta.
A refreshing installation invites us to grab a candy from the green sweet lawn Félix González-Torres has planted at the entrance of the second-floor gallery where the show continues its party. The untitled work was actually born out of grief. Having lost his longtime partner to AIDS in 1991, González-Torres proceeded to extend endless supplies of cellophane-wrapped “candy pills.” The Cuban artist equates the fatal end of the thinning pile to that of a decaying body while the “endless” reference alludes to the restorative ability of the human body and life beyond the grave. After a sea of distress, a drop of optimism – or sugar – can perform miracles.
A curious piece from 2000 credited to Brazilian artist Vik Muniz shows American artist Frank Stella at work on his painting Quathlamba. He wears glasses as he steers the brush to achieve yet another perfect line. The entire scene titled Frank Stella, Quathlamba, is recreated with chocolate syrup. Muniz uses everyday materials such as sugar and dirt to build his whimsical compositions. Despite the lighthearted approach, he nails essential gestures and details. In lieu of the real Bosco-chocolate picture, whose fleeting consistency leaves no room for posterity, the artist offers up a lasting impression in the form of photographs like this one.
The sweet treats are among more than 30 works in the room conspiring to make one point clear: Latin American art is not unlike any other art. It can be personal and distant, colorful and monochromatic, abstract and realistic, impulsive and premeditated, tribal and sophisticated, primitive and refined, intense and light. In that sense, it is everyone’s art.
Grotesque fingers spring up from the ground to hide or protect an emaciated face burdened with universal suffering. The many calamities of the 20th century are said to have sparked a period in Ecuadorian Oswaldo Guayasamín’s career known as the age of anger. Las manos de la esperanza (The hands of hope) is one of its products and embodies the local struggle of indigenous people as well as global emotions induced by events with borderless repercussions.
This highly expressive oil work from 1970 confronts us with the hard fact that tragedy is all-inclusive and does not discriminate based on ethnicity. To paraphrase Dorothy Sayers, how fleeting are all idiosyncrasies compared with the massive continuity of loss. In this case, pain and loss are delivered via the frightened eyes of Guayasamín’s subject while the sprouting effect on the overgrown hands signals a brighter tomorrow.
To a North American museum, dedicating an exhibition to a region historically oppressed, discriminated and neglected understandably may seem enough. It’s the gesture that counts, after all. But years of underrepresentation in gallery halls are not cured with symbolic gestures. To be fair, it is a tall order to digest tons of cultural singularities and present a cohesive unified front, but this is the only way to inform a responsible generalization.
This institution clearly intends to lead the charge via several initiatives committed to Latin American artists; the works on view through March 1 should be just the beginning. The timing is particularly ripe for educating the masses on the cultural role Latin America has played and for gaining traction with Palm Beach County’s growing Latino population.
Approaching this campaign mechanically won’t do. It ought to be a celebration. In the words of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, whose work fueled the show’s title:
The church says: The body is a sin.
Science says: The body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business.
The body says: I am a fiesta.
The Body Says, I Am a Fiesta: The Figure in Latin American Art runs through March 1 at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Admission: $18, except Friday and Saturday, when admission is free; hours: 10 am to 5 pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; 11 am to 5 pm Sunday; 10 am to 10 pm Fridays. Call 832-5196 or visit www.norton.org for more information.