Collective Experience

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

While bilingual, cross-cultural Miami may be an ideal showcase for diverse works by artists from the Americas and of Latin descent, not everyone here is prepared to throw caution to the wind. "So much of what the Latin community buys has to do with status," laments Giulio Blanc, a Miami-based art critic and consultant who curated "Latin American Art in Miami Collections" at the Lowe. "It may have to do with identity and roots, but it's also status A there's almost a tribal dimension to this. Cuban doctors, for example, are among the biggest buyers of Cuban art. They all buy the same names A Lam, Mario Carreno, Amelia Palaez -- and it's very competitive. One is trying to impress the other. It's status buying."

And commerce inevitably dictates what makes it into the galleries and what doesn't. "I specialize exclusively in Latin American modern and contemporary art," notes Jose Martinez Canas, owner of Elite Fine Art, a well-established gallery in Coral Gables. "But I do not experiment. Not because I'm not interested in far-fetched experimental art, but because I just feel it's unfair for a dealer to experiment with his clients' money."

This attitude that prizes Cuban masters or decorative contemporary painters while leaving little room for emerging artists interested in any kind of a postmodern discourse affects the general public, too. At the Lowe, for example, according to Blanc, several visitors thought that Felix Gonzalez-Torres's light sculpture, which stands at the entrance to the "Latin American Art in Miami Collections" exhibition, was a holiday decoration.

While the works in the de la Cruzes' collection are by artists of Latin American origin, they depart considerably from what many people here think of as Latin American art. The couple has compiled an avant-garde survey that highlights the individual strengths of exceptional contemporary artists, whose varied use of media and conceptual strategies serves to question the validity of the term "Latin American art" as a catchall category.

"There's a stereotype that's been reinforced in this country, and especially in Miami, of seeing art produced by Latin Americans as something fantastic and colorful," asserts Berta Sichel, a New York-based Brazilian curator in town recently to attend Art Miami. "People don't recognize conceptual art as Latin American. But there's a strong conceptual art movement in Latin America, especially in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. A lot of the artists whose work is in the de la Cruz collection come out of that tradition."

The almost 200 works in the collection are, with some exceptions, by artists under the age of 40, born in various Latin American countries. Many have emigrated to the U.S., either as children or as adults, for both professional and personal reasons. Their work addresses complex issues of national and cultural identity as filtered through personal experience, and their techniques reflect elements of the artistic traditions A both academic and indigenous A of their respective native countries. While the works in the collection most of all point up the diversity inherent in what could be called contemporary Latin American art, they share at least two common characteristics: a continuous search for identity and the use of a postmodern language of universal symbols.

"I think that when we look at the de la Cruzes' collection, we see art that has become kind of transnational or has gone beyond any regional definition," observes artist Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, who lives in Chicago. "The aesthetics that they are looking at encompass a larger scope of concerns. I think the interest in this collection has been to see a major collector in Miami be one of the precursors of how contemporary work is being collected. This major shift has to do with terminology."

The debate over what qualifies as Latin American art -- and indeed, whether that term should be used at all -- has been going on for decades among curators, critics, dealers, and artists. These politics of identity have become more complicated as more artists explore the disparate cultural influences in their work. While the artists whose work composes the de la Cruz collection are from Latin America or of Latin American origin, most would not define themselves as Latin American artists.

"I'm not necessarily comfortable with the term 'Latin American artist,' that particular south-of-the-border distinction doesn't jibe for a lot of artists," says Manglano-Ovalle, who is currently working on a piece inspired by the recent Summit of the Americas. "And yet our particular kind of roots, our culture and concerns, has to do with a particular nationality, but also with our status here in the United States. I usually use the term 'Latino.' It's an alternative to 'Latin America' and 'Hispanic,' and one that also implies social, cultural, and politicl demographic shifts."

Guillermo Kuitca, considered one of the leading contemporary Latin American painters (his Idea de una pasi centsn sold for more than $40,000 at the Sotheby's auction), says that despite the fact that dealers, museum curators, and art critics classify his work as "Latin American," he doesn't use the term to identify himself.

"I don't classify myself as a Latin American artist," says the 34-year-old painter, speaking from his studio in Buenos Aires. "For me the term doesn't really signify anything. To other people it signifies a lot. I'd say some people give it too much importance. One thing that artists from Latin America share is that they are permanently imprisoned by this classification.

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