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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Art With No Accent

By Matt Schudel

Dec 23, 2001
Copyright © 2001
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

There is no such thing as "Latin American art." What else can you conclude once you've seen "Arte Latino," now at the Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami?

Instead, the wide-ranging survey, covering four centuries and as many traditions, proves that the Spanish cultures of Puerto Rico and the United States have produced many kinds of art. It includes everything from rustic crucifixes to Expressionist painting to abstract sculpture to installations. Some of it is earnestly pious, but in one satirical painting a prelate relieves himself against a wall. There are altars to saints, to the California farm workers' movement and, most grandly, to the actress Dolores del Rio.

To its credit, this traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian's American Art Museum doesn't try to forge false connections between the folk artists of New Mexico, the Puerto Rican photographers of New York, the Chicano painters of Los Angeles and the Cuban-American conceptual artists of Miami. It simply presents the works in all their variety.

The oldest piece in the show is a small wooden Madonna made in Puerto Rico about 400 years ago that could have come straight from the Spanish baroque. The works of Jose Campeche show how strongly New World artists clung to classic European traditions. The son of a slave, Campeche never left Puerto Rico, but he painted as if he had studied in Madrid. A portrait shows a red-jacketed Spanish nobleman, and two religious paintings are executed in styles unchanged since the Renaissance.

By the late 19th century, Puerto Rican religious art had lost its high European gloss and become more of a folk tradition. An All-Powerful Hand from between 1875 and 1900 shows an upraised hand, with doll-like images attached to each finger, ritually depicting Christ's lineage. Small milagros, or talismanic objects, are hung from the hand as superstitious agents of healing.

The art of New Mexico shows a similar progression toward a local style, particularly with its emphasis on the grisly details of crucifixion. Several crucifixes, dating from 1820 to 1998, follow the same folk tradition, explicitly showing the wounds and blood of Christ on the cross.

Many of the artists in the exhibition use their own divided cultural identity as their central subject. Are they Cubans, Mexicans or Puerto Ricans, or are they Americans? Martina Lopez places photographs of her Mexican ancestors in a digitially altered landscape to suggest a disrupted family narrative. A photograph by Joseph Rodriguez depicts a woman standing solemnly in a doorway in Spanish Harlem, next to a Puerto Rican flag painted on a dilapidated building.

The Patio of My House, an elaborate installation by Cuban-born Maria Brito, shows the earth opening beneath a child's crib, as a tree stands rooted inside the crib. On the other side of the installation, Brito has re-created a kitchen sink, with several strips of latex "skin" peeled from the plaster mask of a woman's face.

The Cuban-American photographer Abelardo Morrell shows his sense of dislocation in an upside-down camera-obscura image of Manhattan. Another Cuban-born artist, Maria Castagliola, has stitched dozens of letters into a quiltlike pattern, with each envelope containing the written secrets of her friends and family.

A large canvas by Carlos Alfonzo, who came to Miami with the Mariel boatlift, seems abstract at first, but closer examination reveals daggers, crosses and teardrops. Guatemalan artist Alfredo Ceibal weighs in with a Dali-esque painting that symbolically depicts debauchery and a decadent upper class.

Aside from its social meaning, much of the work demonstrates vivid forms of expression. Mexican-born painter Alfredo Arreguin portrays a feminine Eden, before the creation of men, as camouflaged faces of Frida Kahlo peer out from an intricate riot of blues and greens.

Charles "Chaz" Bojorquez borrows from the graffiti of Los Angeles in his striking black-and-silver painting, We Are the Light. Another Mexican-American artist, Jesus Bautista Moroles, evokes Mayan temples in his minimalist vertical sculpture, Georgia Stele.

Brazilian Vik Muniz has imaginatively reconstructed a photograph of a child by drawing her face on black paper with grains of sugar.

"Arte Latino" is a sweet show in many ways, a sampler to delight many tastes.

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