Collective Experience

Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz's assemblage of cutting-edge contemporary works boldly questions the traditional definition of Latin American art

"We weren't focused," Rosa de la Cruz explains. "Because of our Cuban identity, we thought why not start in the area described by those words that are used so much -- Latin American art." Accordingly, they bought the Matta, the Tamayo, a Wifredo Lam, a work by Cuban artist Rene Portocarrero, and other important midcentury paintings. However, as they visited more and more galleries, they became interested in the contemporary field, and now they are committed to buying only recent works.

"Contemporary art is not for everyone," Rosa de la Cruz cautions. "It's not decorative. It's not something you hang over a sofa." She walks back into her study and picks up a small cardboard box from the top of a file cabinet cluttered with exhibition catalogues. The box is full of nylon stockings, part of a work by the young Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto that she acquired while in Sa~o Paulo for that city's biennial last October. Upon her return, the collector bought two 25-pound bags of lead shot at Home Depot with which to finish the piece. To install the work, called Colonia, each stocking leg must be filled with five pounds of the lead pellets, then dropped to the floor from waist level. When all of the stockings have been dropped, they form a nearly twenty-foot-long composition. By way of demonstration, de la Cruz puts some shot into one of the stocking legs and releases it, creating an anthropomorphic blob on the carpet. A few lead balls trickle out and roll under the file cabinet.

Understanding that works such as this one might be challenging for those unfamiliar with contemporary art, de la Cruz has put together a guide to her collection. Each of the pieces is documented with a thick ream of photocopied sheets, which she distributes to the museum docents, students, and senior citizens groups who frequently ask to view the collection. On each page, she lists the artist's name, country of origin, and the titles of his or her works in the collection. Below that de la Cruz adds excerpts from catalogue texts or art magazine reviews pertaining to the artist. Sometimes she adds her own observations.

"You have to introduce people to contemporary art," de la Cruz contends, taking a seat on the living room sofa with a cup of espresso brought in by a housekeeper. "You can't just expect them to know about it immediately. For some reason, contemporary art is difficult for people to view. I think an artist who has a Spanish name is immediately foreign to the non-Latin public. The name's difficult to pronounce and remember. It doesn't stick in your mind the way a name you're familiar with would. It's not that people don't want to know. It's that when they don't understand the language and the symbolism, they take a step back. The countries are so foreign that they feel more comfortable here labeling them as one culture. When things are foreign, the easiest way to simplify them is to give them one name -- Latin American art.

"Sometimes people come into the house and they walk right past all the work and go straight into the garden. Maybe it's that they've seen only paintings [before], and they're confronted with an installation, and they say, 'What the hell is this?' People are afraid to ask questions, so it's the institution's responsibility to make people more comfortable. That's what I try to do here."

At a record-setting auction of works by Latin America artists held at Sotheby's in New York last November, collectors from South American countries and the United States paid a total of $13.4 million for 61 pieces. The sale also broke individual records for the work of seventeen different artists. A Christie's Latin American auction, held the same week, totaled $16 million, a figure that broke that house's record for Latin American art. The January issue of Art & Auction magazine heralds these precedents with a cover story entitled "Brash New World." Writes editor in chief Amy Page, "No longer a fringe area on the underdeveloped outskirts of the art world, [Latin American art] is becoming increasingly a mainstream concern."

Increasing attention has been paid to Latin American artists by collectors, critics, and curators over the past decade, and some of that interest has centered on Miami, often referred to as a Latin American art capital. Its claim to that title was corroborated convincingly at the annual Art Miami fair, held earlier this month at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Art Miami organizer David Lester said in a recent interview that he would like to play down the fair's reputation as a Latin American event, featuring instead a broader range of galleries. Nonetheless this year's fifth edition still had a predominantly Latin flavor, testimony to the strength of an existing Latin American art market in Miami that caters to buyers from both South Florida and other U.S. cities, as well as from Latin American countries.

This Miami market, dictated by the tastes of members of a Latin (mostly Cuban) elite, is primarily for works in traditional media (painting and bronze or ceramic sculpture) depicting time-honored Latin American subject matter: folkloric still lifes, figurative landscapes, or bright-colored "fantastic" abstractions. There is also a current interest among local collectors in work by contemporary Cuban or Cuban-American artists that reflects the political and social concerns particular to that culture: Jose Bedia, who finds inspiration in the Afro-Cuban Palo Monte religion; Maria Britto, who addresses personal themes of exile in her multimedia constructions; and the conceptual and performance artist Juan-Si, whose latest works critique aspects of Miami's Cuban community.

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