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Old-School Aesthetics Run Deep

Most of 'Latin American Artists: A Contemporary Journey' remains mired in School of Paris conservatism.

March 09, 2001|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

At the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, a newly opened exhibition features some 180 works of contemporary art from Mexico and 17 other countries in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking regions of Central America, the Caribbean and South America. The show will remain on view for nearly two years, as a representation of the young museum's principal aspirations in assembling a permanent collection.

The exhibition is billed as the inaugural installation of MOLAA's permanent collection, but that's a bit misleading. Fewer than two dozen of the works are actually from the museum's holdings. Aside from two paintings and a sculpture by Fernando Botero, which inaugurate the museum's welcome new loan arrangement with the Smithsonian, almost everything is instead borrowed from the private collection of Robert Gumbiner, who founded the museum and is its principal benefactor, or from the Gumbiner Foundation.

The work in "Latin American Artists: A Contemporary Journey" dates mostly from the 1960s to the present, and at least two-thirds of the artists were born after 1945. Yet, despite the pointed emphasis on contemporaneity, don't expect many examples by the Latin American artists who have become principal figures in the internationalized art scene that characterizes the past 20 years--Helio Oiticica, Doris Salcedo, Guillermo Kuitca, Gabriel Orozco, Ernesto Neto, Kcho and dozens of others. Nor should you expect adventurous recent works by less well-known artists such as Nuno Ramos, Menna Barreto and Miguel Calderon, who stood out last fall in the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art's provocative show "Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art."

Indeed, the juxtaposition of the recent San Diego show and the current MOLAA exhibition is instructive. Both generally feature recent art from the same sprawling geographical region, but the two exhibitions look as if they come from different planets and different eras. The art in the MOLAA exhibition may be recent, but it pictures an artistic yesterday.

"Latin American Artists: A Contemporary Journey" is a deeply conservative collection. The show emphasizes easel paintings. With just a few exceptions, nonfigurative paintings are absent. Expressionist and Surrealist motifs dominate. The few sculptures are pedestal works. No assemblages, installations or videos will be seen. The artistic rupture of the 1960s seems never to have happened.

Instead, the pre-World War II European convention of figurative easel painting, often literary, is given a modern veneer through Expressionist brushwork and, especially, Surrealist tropes of dreamlike or fantastical imagery. If this sounds like the old School of Paris--well, the most remarkable feature of the exhibition is the degree to which that aesthetic, long since eclipsed, looms so large as a deeply entrenched ideal throughout certain segments of contemporary Latin American society.

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Typical are the ethereal floating figures of the late Oaxacan painter Rodolfo Morales, with their fusion of local folkloric imagery and motifs indebted to Chagall. Morales' paintings are skillful and not without a cozy charm, and it's no surprise these old-fashioned pleasantries would be anointed in the 1970s by an aging Rufino Tamayo as Mexico's finest contemporary art. Tamayo, who was also Oaxacan, had lived long in Paris, had broken dramatically with his titanic rival, Diego Rivera, and Rivera's cohort and had finally outlived the artists who had aligned themselves (and their art) with Mexico's political revolution. Tamayo's consecration of Morales was an attempt to link the second half of the century with his immodest view of the first, thus extending his own aesthetic authority beyond the grave.

Anecdotal political commentary is certainly present in the MOLAA show. A woodcut by Costa Rica's Adrian Arguedas, which shows a marionette-like priest in black wearing cool sunglasses and a Batman medallion, offers a witty bit of anti-clerical humor. In what amounts to a political cartoon exploded to grandiose scale, a large acrylic canvas by El Salvador's Antonio Bonilla centers on a candy-cane knot that ties a shadowy figure of an aristocrat sporting a silk top hat to a macho policeman crowned by a distinctly phallic cap.

The musty symbolism generates a double take. Who even knew they still made silk top hats?

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