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Updating Baroque

The ornate art aesthetic and popular culture are moving closer together, as strongly displayed in 'Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art' at La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.


LA JOLLA — In baroque art, display is everything. In the 17th century, visual information pumped up to a dynamic level of ostentatious show went hand in hand with European expansionism and a struggle by the Catholic Church against a rising tide of Protestantism. Baroque art was at the very foundations of the modern world.

Now, four centuries later, the wildly diverse, often aggressive manner we think of as the baroque aesthetic might be tied more closely to the extravagant spectacles of popular culture. Think of the kitschy fantasy of the movie "Gladiator," or the Bernini-on-steroids fireworks display that closed Sydney's Olympic Games.

The gap that once separated popular culture from fine art is filling up, though, and baroque tendencies might therefore be expected to flourish in painting, sculpture and other contemporary art. "Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art" is a large and provocative exhibition that asserts as much. The show's focus on recent art in Latin America has an added edge because a useful tradition is in place there--17th century baroque ideas flourished along with the European conquest of the Americas.

Independent curator Victor Zamudio-Taylor organized the show with Elizabeth Armstrong, senior curator at San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art, where it opened last week and remains until early January. "Ultrabaroque" is quite simply the most ambitious and compelling show presented by the museum in many years. If its 80 paintings, sculptures, videos and installations sometimes feel a bit crowded in the museum's rather limited gallery spaces, think of that abundance as itself an exercise in baroque excess.

The curators have brought together a wide array of work made during the last 10 years by 16 artists, most in their late 30s. Exceptional examples by Mexico's Miguel Calderon and Ruben Ortiz Torres, Colombia's Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Brazil's Lia Menna Barreto and Nuno Ramos, Texas-born Franco Mondini Ruiz and Venezuela's Meyer Vaisman make the show unusually satisfying.

Vaisman is probably the artist most well-known in the United States. His bizarre taxidermy turkeys from the early 1990s raised lots of puzzled eyebrows when they were first shown in New York, but they make perfect sense here.

The turkey is a quintessentially American bird--at the first Thanksgiving, the iconic symbol of ritual negotiation between uninvited immigrants and indigenous people. Vaisman has dressed his turkey (pun intended) in a costume of wild excess, blending elements of a Playboy bunny, a man's tuxedo and a Japanese kimono. At once ludicrous and lovely, a grotesque joke and an elegant feat of sheer ingenuity, the proud, dumb bird-in-drag stands atop a handsomely crafted wooden box. The Minimalist box is sculpture slyly turned into a pedestal for extravagant display.

An immense painted relief by Ramos, who is not well-known here, is another of the exhibition's most powerful works. Eighteen feet wide, and constructed from broken mirrors, copper tubing, chicken wire, slathered paint, castoff lengths of fabric, blown glass, wax, tin foil and other flotsam, the relief includes elements that reach out some nine feet to probe the spectator's space. Simultaneously repellent and seductive, threatening and playful, the junkyard painting is part low-rent Frank Stella, part Jessica Stockholder gone grunge, but all filtered through Ramos' own muscular yet poetic sensibility.

Display takes an entirely different, highly refined form in "Infinito Botanico, San Diego," commissioned for the show. On a low white platform stretched across one gallery, Mondini Ruiz has arranged a grid of little knickknacks in a carefully chosen color scheme of green, white and rosy pink, abstracting the refreshing interior of a cut watermelon. Plastic grapes, action figures, avocado-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers, bottle openers, cigarettes, souvenir carvings, 7-Up bottles and other assorted items churned out by mercantile society are laid out like recycled merchandise at a yard sale. Brought under the lively spell of aesthetic pleasure, though, the lowly or degraded gets redeemed through colorful display.

A beautiful group of five sheer curtains by Menna Barreto is made haunting and poignant by the inclusion of artificial flowers and children's toys--plastic dolls, spiders, frogs, salamanders. Most are traditional baroque symbols of life's fragility. Ironed into transparent fabric and looking like awful wounds, they transform the curtains into diaphanous mementos of lost innocence.

Artificial flowers also feature prominently in Cardoso's graceful "Cemetery--Vertical Garden." Clustered clouds composed from hundreds of long-stemmed white lilies protrude from a wall, on which suggestions of crypts are marked in trembling pencil lines.

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