LA JOLLA — "New Traditions: Thirteen Hispanic Photographers" is a show whose premise is at least as provocative as its contents. When Robert J. Phelan, curator of the exhibition for the New York State Museum, was searching out work to include, he expected "for longer than I now care to admit" that a unifying theme would emerge among Hispanic photographers.
Instead, he writes in the exhibition catalogue, the theme that emerged was no theme at all. The show, he acknowledges, is about contradictions.
The 13 photographers in the show, now at UC San Diego's Mandeville Gallery, all share a common Hispanic heritage, whether born in the United States, Chile, Cuba, Spain, Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia or Puerto Rico. But their work demonstrates that what they really have most in common is their allegiance to the aesthetics of the New York art world. Over half of them now live in or near New York City, and only three live outside the United States, one in Paris, one in Puerto Rico and one in Spain.
This bit of information starts to splinter the show's purported logic, raising questions that neither the work nor the illustrated, bilingual catalogue adequately explains. Why the tremendous migratory shift from the artists' native countries to the United States? Do the "new traditions" of the show's title signal a wholesale adoption of this country's artistic mores, at the expense of the artists' own ethnic traditions? If nothing but ethnic identity unites the photographers, is the show simply a gesture of affirmative action?
Contradictions abound, and Phelan compounds the situation by addressing important issues of ethnicity and categorization in his essay while deftly evading any resolutions. Like the exhibition itself, the essay zigzags first in one direction, then another, using pluralism as an excuse for curatorial indecision.
At the sensationalistic end of the spectrum--and showing Phelan's New York bias most blatantly--is the work of Andres Serrano and Geno Rodriguez, both born in New York. Both employ large, glossy color formats for their highly staged, theatrical imagery.
Serrano isolates against hazy backdrops such grotesque items as a severed cow's head and a container filled with brains, elevating these to monumental, iconic stature. Instead of reading as a critique of the use of shock and violence in the media, as Phelan claims, the photographs merely exploit such imagery's perverse appeal.
Rodriguez's reinterpretations of mythical and biblical personages are equally dramatic. His "Saint Sebastian" (1984), for instance, consists of a diagonally aligned torso, painted blue and pierced with glass rods; "Poseidon" (1984) is simply one leg, from the knee down, strapped with small fish. Both Rodriguez and Serrano presumably want us to extract meaning from these emblems, but the slickness of their styles makes those emblems hard to move beyond.
Three other artists--George Malave, Emilio Rodriguez-Vazquez and Ricardo Sanchez--drag the exhibition down with their colorful but vacant renditions of the urban and natural landscape.
Thankfully, when these shallow appeals to the retina exhaust themselves, there is other work in the show that can satisfy one's hunger for depth, poignancy and social relevance. Here, the photographers' Hispanic origins surface as vital components of their vision and comprehension of social realities. These works would have formed even a stronger core for the show had it argued for the continuing influence of the artists' Hispanic roots.
Benedict J. Fernandez's work from the series "Liberty--Mother of Exiles," a commissioned documentation of the thousands of illegal aliens held in U.S. detention centers while awaiting political asylum, exposes the bleakness of the detainees' environs with admirable understatement. "I.N.S. Riot Gear at New York Facility" (1986) and "Room Where Detainees' Personal Belongings are Stored" (1986) together make a powerful claim for the equal anonymity of both detainees and guards within the system. The detainees' numbered sacks hang on the wall like so many laundry bags, identical from the outside but personalized within, just like the neat, orderly stacks of helmets, vests and clubs that render the individual guards into an anonymous authoritarian force.
Chilean-born Marcelo Montecino's work documents the human dimension of social conflict in Central and South America. His "Funeral for Victim of Security Forces, Santiago, Chile" (1983) and "The Grandmother of the Disappeared, San Salvador, El Salvador" (1982) render the viewer a witness of injustice, and thus implicitly responsible for its correction.