Leo Matiz puts Frida Kahlo on a pedestal.
Leo Matiz puts Frida Kahlo on a pedestal.

Picture Perfecto

To cash in on the Arteaméricas fair last week, some local galleries dusted off their stock and cobbled together ersatz shows hoping to snare collectors' eyes.

Chelsea Galleria bolted from the pack with "Lente Latino," an intriguing exhibition showcasing contemporary Latin American photography, anchored by the work of Leo Matiz and also featuring Tony Mendoza, Eduardo del Valle, Mirta Gomez, Elsa Mora, Francisco Olazabal, and Christian Robotti.

Matiz is perhaps known best for capturing the humanity of the peasants and laborers he chose as subjects, and for his remarkable portraits of many of Latin America's cultural icons. Chelsea is showing 11 of the photographer's arresting silver gelatin prints, the bulk of which were shot during the Forties and Fifties.


Lente Latino

Through April 9. Chelsea Galleria, 2441 NW Second Ave., Miami; 305-576-2950, www.chelseagalleria.com

Matiz often positioned himself below and very close to his subjects, resulting in intimate photographs that draw the viewer into his dramatic compositions.

One of the most striking works is a 1945 picture of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. In it, the artist appears to be reenacting the crucifixion. Matiz shot Siqueiros while he posed for a study for his mural Nuestra Imagen.

The Mexican master is stripped down to his underpants and is seen dangling in the hollow of a gnarled tree trunk, to which he fiercely clings. His eyes are clenched shut from exertion, and his head is oddly angled.

In one of two portraits of Frida Kahlo on exhibit, Matiz frames Mexico's most famous woman painter leaning on a jalopy's spare tire and gazing majestically heavenward. The photograph was taken in 1940, after Kahlo had returned from a wildly successful show in Paris, where the Louvre bought one of her paintings. It was the first work by a 20th-c entury Mexican artist ever purchased by the museum.

In Matiz's stunning portrait, Kahlo appears with flowers wreathed into the braids crowning her skull. Although she wears one of her signature ruffled peasant blouses, the painter poses with a regal bearing that Matiz heightens by shooting her close up and from below, casting the artist as larger than life.

An example of Matiz's deep empathy for the impoverished and downtrodden is evident in El Viejo, a splendid head shot of an anonymous old man in which the photographer also employs a low camera position. The perspective enlarges his subject's stature, giving the old man the visage of an ancient statue as the viewer is roped into looking upward at the man's craggy, weather-beaten features.

Matiz is also known for having opened the first art gallery in Colombia and for giving Fernando Botero his first show.

In a picture from 1951, in which Matiz himself appears sneaking a cigarette, Botero is shown standing outside the Leo Matiz Art Gallery, where he appears on the undercard of an announcement trumpeting the exhibit of watercolors by Pastor Calpena, who stands nearby.

The late Colombian-born Matiz, who was called the "Stieglitz of Latin America," was universally acclaimed as one of the top photographers of his time. This modest display of his photographs at Chelsea, rarely shown in these parts, conveys why.

Tony Mendoza shifts the perspective to a dog's-eye view of the world with four color-saturated archival inkjet prints of his spunky, tawny-furred whelp named Bob. These canine portraits have an alluring yet whimsical appeal, at times with an underlying ferocity.

In Bob 43, the irresistible mutt poses obediently under a maple tree whose leaves have turned a rich autumn gold. From atop his caramel bed of fallen maple leaves, the pooch points his moist snout to the sky and seems to scan the horizon with a bum blue eye.

Mendoza became known in the Eighties for his book Ernie: A Photographer's Memoir, a book combining pictures of his cat with clever narratives.

If a picture tells a thousand tales, one wonders what narrative lies behind Bob 64. In the cropped closeup, the dog stares at the spectator from within a canopy of lush tropical plants. Bob has one milky-blue eye that contrasts starkly with his good brown one. The animal's creepy, fixed stare is so unnerving that the viewer might barely register that Bob is clutching a dead sparrow in his craw. Does Bob come bearing gifts? Is his lip beginning to shiver in a protective snarl? Despite the image's whiff of menace, Mendoza's doggy is so damn charming it's difficult to tell.

Looking at Francisco Olazabal's complex yet elegant abstract compositions of urban sediment and dreck, you'd never guess he shlepped as a bean counter at Price Waterhouse for 35 years.

With an impeccable eye, Olazabal snaps gritty walls, creaky billboards, peeling posters, and everyone else's trash. His images are multilayered, fragmented tapestries of bruised inner-city façades. They groan with the plaintive wail of passing time. Eye Handle, a large C-print on plexi/sintra depicts sections of graffiti-splotched plywood shuttering what appears to be the entrance of a store. A horse head rears toward the upper right of the composition as a door handle peeks through a slit in the wood.

Olzabal's works, among the most energetic in the show, seem almost varnished in a hood-rat veneer and appear to have been created by an artist one-third his age.

On an adjacent wall, Cuban-American duo Eduardo del Valle and Mirta Gomez focus the lens on the Yucatán salt flats through their Lagoon Revisited series. Some pictures depict areas of concentrated color, and others resemble archaeological digs; some are briny and rife with the gleam of salt crystals in fleshy pink salmon or waxy sallow hues. Several staked-out salt pits exude a shade of mass graves.

In a back room, Christian Robotti's C-prints on plexi/sintra depict cloudbursts, light poles, and flowers as if they were refracted through a kaleidoscope's lens. Either that or its the artist's stab at digitalized optical legerdemain.

Elsa Mora rounds out the show with several compelling pieces created using Imbue print on handmade watercolor paper. The works are rife with a fetishistic vibe.

Círculo Vicioso depicts a nautilus-shape composition concocted from dried rosebuds, with a phalanx of goliath beetles marching toward the viewer.

It is one of many barbed images that linger. The only quibble is that Chelsea has chosen to run this show so briefly it seems barely adequate given the discoveries on display. That the rug is getting yanked from under Matiz without much fanfare is damn rude.


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