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Southern Exposure

'Amnesia,' a traveling exhibition of contemporary South American works, looks to inform audiences of a continent's contributions.

June 28, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

As crows and airplanes fly, the art capitals of South America are closer to Los Angeles than are their counterparts in Europe. But distance can't be equated with familiarity. North American art is so steeped in European tradition that most art history students and culture-oriented tourists who live in the United States and routinely visit museums in Paris, London, Madrid, Florence and Rome rarely travel to Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Bogota or Caracas.

The same mind-set applies to contemporary art exhibitions in local museums and galleries. While European artists show their work here with increasing frequency, presentations by South Americans are rare occurrences. Los Angeles is strongly associated with Latin American art, but most local exhibitions devoted to that vast body of material are limited to Mexican and Chicano art.

"South America is almost a forgotten continent," said dealer Christopher Grimes, who owns a gallery in Santa Monica and has given considerable thought to the situation. "Very few people here think about it nearly as much as they think about Mexico or the Chicano movement."

Compounding the problem, this narrow viewpoint is dominated by a few stars and stereotypical subject matter, he said. "In the United States, Latin American art is generally thought of in a sociopolitical sense, as in the work of Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera, or in terms of local politics in Chicano art. Not to deny the importance of that aspect of the culture; it's just that Latin America is so much bigger than that."

With that concern in mind, Grimes has spent a couple of years organizing "Amnesia," a traveling exhibition of contemporary South American art opening Wednesday both at his gallery and Tom Patchett's Track 16 Gallery, a much larger space at Bergamot Station. Billed as an exploration of "a forgotten continent within the context of a Western art world," the show will focus on how art issues continue to be "formed, shaped and processed through a colonial history." As the evocative title suggests, the artists also grapple with the human condition, psychological nuances and vicissitudes of memory.

An unusually ambitious project for a commercial gallery, "Amnesia" will fill about 7,000 square feet of space with new works--most of them created specifically for the show--by 16 artists from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. An illustrated catalog, published by Patchett's Smart Art Press, contains essays in Spanish and English by Tunga, a prominent Brazilian artist and writer, and several curators.

Grimes also has organized a symposium, to be held Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m., at Track 16 Gallery. Charles Merewether, curator of the Getty Research Institute, will moderate a discussion with panelists Alma Ruiz, assistant curator at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, and artists Jose Gabriel Fernandez of Venezuela, Sergio Vega of Argentina and Brazilians Miguel Rio Branco and Tunga. Transcripts from the symposium will be published in Trans magazine.

The L.A. engagement is only the first stage of "Amnesia." Following its debut here, the show will travel to the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati (Jan. 23-March 28, 1999), the Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango in Bogota (April 21-June 27, 1999) and the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum in Tampa (at an unscheduled date in 2000).

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Anxiously awaiting shipments of art from South America, during an interview at his gallery, Grimes said he hopes the show and symposium will raise awareness of what Los Angeles' contemporary art audience has been missing. But he made no grand claims about correcting the balance with one exhibition. Readily admitting that "Amnesia" is merely one small, very selective slice of an enormous territory and that he is already being criticized for some of his curatorial decisions, he puzzled about how to describe the project that has developed organically out of his personal interest and travels.

"It's easier to say what the show is not about than what it is about," he said. With only four countries represented, the exhibition is far from a survey of South American art, and "setting up some form of didactic structure" was not part of his agenda. "I think of it as an opportunity to see the work and to think about it in a different way. One of the problems with much of the work that comes here is that it tends to be interpreted by body politics or multiculturalism or whatever the critical political agenda is at the moment. That is relevant to us, but it's not relevant to a region that's not operating under those circumstances. Their issues, their political views are very different from ours," he said.

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