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A spunky gathering

'La Presencia' at the Museum of Latin American Art leaves out too many important contemporary artists. But some pieces shine.

July 27, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

When an art museum opens a new or expanded building, as the Museum of Latin American Art recently did in Long Beach, a dilemma arises for the curatorial staff: Should the opening feature a special exhibition?

Or, given the unending demands of new construction, will the distractions prove too great to allow a rigorous show to emerge?

MOLAA has a large selection of the permanent collection on view, but the museum also opted to go with an exhibition -- "La Presencia: Latin American Art in the United States" -- showing admirable spunk. As the title implies, the work of contemporary Latin American artists is already "present" in U.S. collections, public and private, as well as in galleries. Seventy-five works by 48 artists have been assembled for the exhibition, which is a resourceful way of saying that the newly expanded MOLAA is joining hands with larger cultural developments elsewhere.

As it turns out, however, the show's reach exceeds the museum's grasp. "La Presencia" is a muddle.

There are some strong individual works, including a terrific 1945 Roberto Matta and a nice 1970 Rufino Tamayo, both Surrealist-inspired easel paintings. (The fierce Matta head is spiky and demonic; the vibrant Tamayo figures are hallucinatory.) Together with Gunther Gerzso, represented by a crisp abstraction of layered color-planes, the painters are shown as examples of "founding fathers" -- Latin American masters, who also developed followings in the United States after World War II.

But aside from being celebratory, the show doesn't seem to know quite what it wants to be. In addition to its U.S. links, "La Presencia" presents itself as a survey of Latin American art from about 1950 to today, as well as a chronicle of supposed aesthetic movements -- representational art, geometric and Optical art, Pop art and Conceptual art. A final room features a dozen works, including four videos, said to represent "new trends." But the show does not cohere.

Seventy-five works by four dozen artists are far too few to adequately survey half a century of art in 20 countries. The omissions are many.

The 1960s participatory sculptures and installations made by such Brazilian artists as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica have been widely admired by American artists and collectors. Julio Galán, the Neo-Expressionist painter who died last year at 46, was arguably Mexico's most widely known young artist in the 1980s and 1990s, with a large U.S. following.

But these and many other obvious artists are not included in the survey. And the final section, "New Trends," includes artists born in Latin America but now working in the United States -- such as Argentine painter Fabian Marcaccio -- so the list of omissions quickly balloons.

The aesthetic chronicle is similarly insufficient, especially in today's post-art-movement world. A history of styles requires a pretty firm commitment on the part of every artist to conscious participation in that movement. There have been some important ones in Latin America -- say, the Grupo Madi in Argentina in the late 1940s and 1950s, which was part of South America's important Constructivist legacy. But the show's categories, like the one on geometric art, don't get that specific.

Instead they're blandly descriptive. Even for the uninitiated it's not really helpful to be told a geometric painting is geometric, or that one with Mickey Mouse uses Pop subject matter.

A visitor clings instead to compelling individual works, of which there are several. One is a monumental relief painting by Jesus Rafael Soto, in which the separate painted and sculptural components overlay different mathematical systems. The shapes might be geometric, but the contradictory visual result is an oddly fluid, organic vibrancy.

Elsewhere is Guillermo Kuitca's absorbing painted map of a section of Northern Germany, where the mostly unidentified urban centers are muddy blobs of black, connected by a dense web of roads that run through clearly marked small towns. Kuitca's painting maps a deft cultural journey, where meaning flows from the specific experience of the countryside into the shadowy city.

He adds a deft bit of Pop wit too -- even though the painting is not installed in the show's Pop art section. (That's the trouble with categorical movements: The art rarely fits.) A town in the map's upper left corner -- too large to be small, and too small to be large -- has a name that is not crystal clear but is legible. The town is Oldenburg, a wry reference to the American Pop sculptor of monumental banalties, Claes Oldenburg.

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