A toe in the water of Latin American Art

It’s quite impossible to even try to make any sort of generalization about art in a continent as large and as diverse as Latin America, but I would like to throw out a few ideas.
First of all, I think this area has long been ignored. It seems like every few decades, the world discovers it, gets excited and then forgets it rather completely. We seem to be on another long slow uptake in interest. The recent sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s which saw records set for Cuban born Wifredo Lam and Colombian Fernando Botero might be indications that we are on the cusp of a new appreciation and recognition of artists from this region. Certainly museums such as the Pompidou Center and Tate Modern have begun to pay attention. In the US there are various museums, institutions and galleries which specialize in artists from Latin America. The recent huge economic growth in Brazil might also be playing a part. For whatever reason I must say it is about time. Latin American artists have, for too long been ignored. the influence of Chilean Robert Matta, whose work also set records at auction, on abstract expressionists has long been little appreciated.
So where to begin in talking about this. Well, I think I would like to begin with the controversial Argentine born Colombian based art critic Marta Traba. Over the summer I found a reissue of her book “Dos Decadas Vulnerables en las Artes plasticas latinoamericanas 1950-1970. Traba was in her time (she died in an airplane accident along with her husband in the 80’s) an extremely influential force in promoting certain Latin American and specifically Colombian artists, while rejecting others. One of the joys of reading her,in fact, is to read a critic with strongly held views. Particularly today, when most visual art criticism is an exercise in descriptive writing, it was a treat to read someone who strongly believed in art and saw it in a wider context. This was a reminder of what criticism, for better or worse, used to be. Of course, as she saw things increasingly through the prism of a Communist ideology, she tended to lose favor, and there are times one wants to scream at some of her ideas, but they definitely provide food for thought.
She also seems to have grappled with a fundamental dichotomy.
To grossly oversimplify some of what she was saying, she seemed to have, at first, been an internationalist, that is, a believer in art which is not limited to geographical or local issues, but reflective of more universal purely artistic concerns. Later she came to see US movements such as abstract expressionism as reflective of the larger imperialism inherent in US activity which bulldozed over local regional concerns, artistic or otherwise,and fought for artistic expression which, while avoiding regional clichés, nevertheless invoked sensibilities and symbols culturally localized.
Again I am giving a hugely simplified version of some very complex ideas, but this pull between local concerns and a more international art aesthetic seems to me to be still one which is still an issue, even if it remains beneath the surface.
The new factor in the equation is that with a huge increase in mobility and a plethora of art fairs, galleries and international artistic cooperation, Latin American artists travel more, and are more likely to live in wildly different locations so that their direct influences are less likely to be restricted to one culture or idiom, even when they might use some of that culture or language ion their art. The curator of a  gallery in Mexico City once told me that many people were upset that some of the artists showing in the gallery used English exclusively even though they were Mexican. “We are all very proud of being Mexican but we live everywhere, we are influenced by lots of different things and English is currently  a universal language, so that is what we use.” she told me.
Many of these artists are now internationalists by virtue of their lives which are international. the Venezuelan born artist Eduardo Gil is one example. He recently closed one show at Museo Carillo Gil in Mexico City and another in Sicardi Gallery in Houston. He lives in New York City and looking at his work is highly instructive. At Sicardi he had a spiraling wooden structure which presented series of newspapers whose headlines featured the end of  wars in which the US was involved. He then made a series of sculptures showing the beginning 20th century wars the US was involved in. These would apparently fast forward like calendar pages in an old movie. At Museo Carillo Gil, he had something completely different and so complicated that I won’t even begin to discuss it except that it involved a reference to an early disgraced Russian doctor who created a very strange device for externally stimulating and simulating the organs of a deceased body. Like so many artists his concerns are in no way culturally or geographically bound, Also like so many in Latin America, conceptualism seems to be a predominant factor here.
It is impossible and unwise to generalize except that there is an enormous wealth of talent there which might at long last be coming into its own. -david sokolec


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