The issue of Latin-American art -- what it is and if our city is a center for it -- comes up in Miami art circles almost daily. For many artists Miami, for better or worse, feels like a Latin-American city within the United States. Language and cultural ties make this area a unique artistic environment. Yet Miami's multiculturalism is ambivalently perceived, here and in Latin America, in part because of the debate over just what Latin art is.
To some Anglos, Latin Americans and their art represent the exotic, and when they break from that mold they are considered sellouts or simply uninteresting. It puts Latino artists in a difficult predicament. They are perceived as Latino artists because they are supposed to create Latin art, reflecting a specific kind of Third-World image, i.e., one infused with Catholic symbolism or an Afro-Latin or mestizo feel. It is a stereotype that affects even artists in Latin America, where many of their works are not marketable, because collectors seek international Latino names and themes. It creates a limited niche in which they can work and diminishes their chances in a broader market. Some think it deters experimentation into more international contemporary traditions, and many important Latin artists think they have to emigrate to the United States and Europe in order to work as contemporary artists. Yet then they risk being labeled as sellouts. They have to vie for recognition from the art establishment while negotiating self-identity.
The recent exhibition "Iconos y Leyendas," a show of mostly mixed media on cardboard (and two big canvases) by Cuban artist Julio Antonio at the Durban Segnini Gallery in Coral Gables, can be seen within this much-debated topic. Antonio is a veteran artist who's had solo shows in Florida and group exhibitions in New York, Latin America, and Europe. His iconography blends a primitive totemlike figuration with visceral political cartooning. One finds anecdotal tableaux, as if the works were illustrated stories of the artist and his time. They reveal male ennui, sin, and nostalgic guilt. Antonio's political satire picks on the longest-lasting Latin-American dictatorship in recent times, but he does so in a way that relates to a more generally pervasive Latin-American political affliction.
In Sobre Tribuna (On the Platform), in which the dictator addresses (from a platform) a sparse audience within a geometric, proplike amphitheater resting on wobbly legs, the oppressor's power is single-handedly reduced to make-believe. La Caja de Vapor (The Vapor Box) resembles a self-disciplinary sauna for -- as Antonio puts it -- softening hard buttocks and the obstinate thoughts of the forgotten dead. Works such as Pidiendo Milagros (Asking for Miracles), El Paciente (The Patient), La Consulta (The Consultation), and El Jinete Iguanero (which refers more to prostitution of identity than to the physical act) are almost epigrammatic.
These works imply twisted tales of exploitation and, worse, self-subjugation. In Rara Sensación (Weird Sensation), a female body slowly broils on a barbecue. If burning purifies the alchemic stuff, Antonio's low-flame grilling may stand for a more torpid kind of self-imposed purging. The display of long-robed skeletal characters throughout the show are a biting metaphor for a common modern Latin-American subject: the individual starved for recognition, filled with bitterness against those with power, but at the same time deeply seduced by that very power's lure. Antonio accompanies image with text captions, an overused postmodern habit; though this scribbling at the perimeter can become a frame for the pictorial, he does a bit too much of it. What some of these works need is breathing space for colors and images.
If the reality of the Latin-American artist is that of being pushed and caught up in a vicious cycle of nationalism and mass populism on the one hand, and fear of cultural annexation on the other, Antonio's work strikes a moderate balance. His pieces may poke at the status quo, but not at the expense of dwelling in political blindness and self-denial. And he manages to accomplish this within a tradition of painting with a fresh feel -- something avoided by today's more progressive forces, where installation is all and painting is considered dead.
Diego Rivera, the great Mexican muralist, is still a paradigm for many Latin-American artists today. Though in his youth he toyed with Cubism (the international style of choice in the early Twentieth Century), he was able to find a personal language that was uniquely Mexican. He worked hard to balance autoctonía, the Mexican-Spanish cultural mix he inherited, with an original pictorial style. Rivera understood that Cubism at the time was an art form accessible to an artistic few, and back in Mexico he abandoned Cubism for low-paying jobs painting murals. (Many supporters of Cubism and ex-allies in the art establishment worked to destroy his reputation.) This is not to say all Latin-American artists must find such balance, yet given our history and the reality of the art world, it's a desirable solution.
In the end Latin-American art is at best a confusing term for denoting a hodgepodge of traditions that have some similar threads but that are formed from different histories and nationalities. Some people confuse language with history. Language is an important part of any pictorial tradition, but art also reflects specific cultural backgrounds and terrains. The interesting part is that most Latin Americans don't even refer to themselves as such (though some do, in the presence of non-Latinos). It's better, artistically and culturally, that they remain Dominicans, Mexicans, Peruvians, Venezuelans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Argentines, Cubans, and so on.
As for bringing it all together and figuring out who we are here in Miami, the town meeting at Bernice Steinbaum's gallery was a good start. There haven't been many events like this in recent history. Members from all sides of the art world were invited to discuss anything and everything. It turned out to be a verbal exorcism of sorts, a collective catharsis among a community of people who, for the most part, know one another by first names. It was good to see commotion: People raised questions, plotted schemes and -- why not? -- just complained. Most seemed to want to wake up a too-often uninterested establishment -- media, government, and institutions -- and the meeting turned into an opportunity to vent.
Steinbaum was responsible for keeping the evening rolling, which she jauntily managed to do. Developer Craig Robbins, the man behind the Design District revival, accepted a plea to provide space when the much anticipated Basel Art Fair comes to town in 2002. Kathleen Harleman from the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale offered her space for the immediate future, as did Rod Faulds from Florida Atlantic University. Dealers got a say as well. Though admittedly hesitant at first, Fred Snitzer approved of a collective effort to improve the arts scene. He referred to Steinbaum's initiative as nurturing. Next meeting happens at his space.
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