An Overly Broad Brush

Latin American Women Artists 1915-1995, currently at the Center for the Fine Arts, is an equal opportunity exhibition, embracing both mastery and mediocrity under the guise of revisionist history. A broad, academic survey, it was organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum as a showcase for female artists from Latin America who, ostensibly, have not received even the limited international exposure of their male counterparts. In actuality, the work of many of the 35 artists in the show has been widely seen in American and European museums over the last decade, from the ubiquitous Frida Kahlo to the trendy contemporary Brazilian Jac Leirner. The exhibition allows the general public an opportunity to view some engaging works by important artists--including major historical figures--but it offers few revelations for anyone with a basic knowledge of Latin American art. Perhaps this dry, didactic display was an eye opener in Milwaukee. In Miami, it's not.

In any case, the premise of the exhibition, as stated in the catalogue, is to demonstrate that women artists in Latin America have participated in international modern and contemporary art movements, and that their work has also been tempered by their own indigenous and colonial cultures. And "Latin American Women Artists" succeeds in illustrating those elementary multicultural concepts. But it does not provide much more insight into the production of art in Latin America.

Like other politically correct surveys, this one sets out to broaden the scope of art history's traditionally Eurocentric tunnel vision. Unfortunately, the show itself manifests a patronizingly superficial attitude toward the art of Latin America, where women, like men, are shaped not only by their era but by their personal concerns, and by the disparate political, social, and artistic climates in their respective countries, provinces or cities. They are not, as the name of the show suggests, defined by some vague female identity shared by artists living in Latin American countries.

The exhibition does not sufficiently focus on any one period, country, or group of artists or individuals to provide a substantive view of their work. Nor is the show large enough to adequately put the works in context from a historical point of view. Neither is any one discernable stylistic or thematic element explored. Stuck, as it were, on middle ground, the exhibition doesn't come to life. There's plenty to see, but as a whole, the show is dull, much like a textbook slide presentation in a college art history class, rather than a lecture on the subject delivered by an informed and impassioned speaker.

Displayed in the CFA's second floor galleries, the exhibition is divided historically, into three parts. It starts off solidly, if predictably, with artists whose work reflected burgeoning European modernist styles at the beginning of the century but whose subject matter was the life and landscapes of their native countries. Most of these artists studied abroad, as was (and is) customary for Latin Americans of financial means. According to the wall label accompanying her work, Anita Malfatti, a Paris-educated artist from S‹#o Paulo, has been called "the first Brazilian woman artist of the Twentieth Century," a title that less privileged, stay-at-home artists of her time would certainly find dubious. Here, a 1916 nude and a later portrait of Brazilian modernist leader Mario de Andrade are painted in a fuzzy expressionist-cubist style. Far more engaging are works by another well-known Brazilian, Tarsila do Amaral. Like Malfatti, the revolutionary Amaral was a member of the modernist collective Grupo dos Cinco. She promoted a nationalist aesthetic, employing a tropical palette and embracing Brazilian themes. Exhibited here, a small ink drawing of a black woman with exaggerated curves is wonderful -- sensuous and playful. In her surreal 1929 painting, Sol Poente (Setting Sun), a group of rodents flop like plump breasts on the road below a grove of frisky phallic cactuses.

Amelia Palaez, a Miami collectors' favorite, adopted modernist precepts to Cuban subjects. The four of her bright-colored canvases included here are geometric studies of the hibiscus flowers and iron grillwork of Havana's colonial architecture.

Several paintings by Frida Kahlo and fellow Mexican Maria Izquierdo are also on display in this section of the gallery. One is Kahlo's Self-Portrait with Monkey, perhaps the artist's most widely exhibited and reproduced work. Museumgoers who have not seen the actual painting before will probably be surprised by its small size (a little more than a foot square). The more obscure oil on aluminum painting Naturaleza Muerta: Pitahayas (Still Life: Cactus Fruit) is a minor work, but it exemplifies Kahlo's disconcerting sense of macabre whimsicality -- a tiny skeleton with a scythe is depicted descending on a pile of ripe red cactus fruit. Izquierdo's naive painting of Mexican circus performers Tony y Teresita en Su Numero (Tony and Teresita Performing Their Number) is also at once delicate and disturbing --the suggestion of something sordid is hidden behind the figures' fixed smiles.

A highlight of the show is a small, separate room containing paintings by Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, two artists from the surrealist period whose work is not seen enough. Five of Varo's fantastic, intricately detailed metaphysical compositions are included here, filled with fairylike spectral figures and imagined inventions. Five smallish paintings on display by Carrington convey her more decadent vision, reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch, and her own interest in science and mysticism.

Up until this point, "Latin American Women Artists" provides a cohesive look at disparate interpretations of the ideas of the early-century avant-garde, particularly surrealism, in work that is, for the most part, highly personal. The organizers of this exhibition could have stopped here, elaborated on this period, and perhaps confined the whole show to women artists connected with the surrealist movement living in Latin America. (Both Varo, a Spaniard, and Carrington, an Englishwoman, emigrated to Mexico during World War II. The question of whether to call them "Latin American women artists" at all is debatable).

But the exhibition charges on. The next section provides a scattered look at abstraction by artists from different countries and time periods, associated with various artistic movements. Paintings and drawings by Uruguayan Rosa Acle are blatant derivations of the work of her teacher, the grand constructivist Joaquin Torres-Garcia. They would be of more interest within the context of a show about Torres-Garcia and his pupils than they are here. Argentine Raquel Forner's Picassoesque paintings allude to the horrors of war. Examples of late-Fifties geometric abstraction wall constructions by Lygia Clark, the cofounder of the Brazilian neo-concrete movement are cool and jazzy, and stand out among other works in the gallery. A freestanding Sphere in Cube geometric sculpture by Venezuela's Gego, on the other hand, looks clunky and dated. There are four very nice examples of Brazilian fiber artist Olga de Amaral's intricate tapestries -- the beautiful Montana Oro (Gold Mountain), fashioned from fiber, parchment and gold leaf, looks like a precious swatch of medieval mail. Other works, by competent but unexceptional artists hang on the walls or stand around like so much innocuous filler.

In choosing work for the historical sections of the show, curator Geraldine Biller has stuck with artists who are already consecrated figures in Latin America. But in the part of the exhibition that focuses on contemporary artists, she has had to make her own choices, and some of her inclusions are questionable.

The contemporary section takes the viewer from country to country, style to style. Some of Biller's choices are obvious -- Argentine Liliana Porter's erudite, postmodern paintings have been exhibited widely, and deservedly so. Leda Catunda and Jac Leirner are among a group of critically acclaimed young Brazilian artists with a keen conceptual and tactile sensibility. The late Ana Mendieta, whose feminist earthworks explored her cultural heritage and personal identity, is a legend. But why are Mendieta and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, an Afro-Cuban artist whose testimonial installation is reminiscent of the work of Lorna Simpson, the only Cubans represented here? Why is the studentlike installation of live plants and painted panels by Chilean Soledad Salame considered worthy of inclusion? Why is most of the work representational rather than conceptual, and why is there a dearth of work by socially committed artists (the one exception is Chile's Catalina Parra, whose American Blues, a series of collages criticizing U.S. imperialism, is not her best work)? What really, if anything, ties these artists together?

Don't look to the curator for answers.
"The audiences who view this exhibition will have to decide whether or not there exists a common aesthetic among Latin American women artists," Biller writes blithely in the catalogue. A very equitable sentiment. But it would have made for a better show if the curator herself had started out with something to say.

Latin American Women Artists: 1915-1995. Through August 25, at the Center for the Fine Arts, 101 W. Flagler St; 375-3000.


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