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Latin American art springs forth in California museums

In exhibits, exchanges and programs, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and other institutions are examining fresh topics and weaving the work into a global fabric.

March 04, 2012|By Suzanne Muchnic, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • "Unknown", Codex selden (AD 155601560), Mexico, Western Oaxaca, Deerskin gesso and pigments.
"Unknown", Codex selden (AD 155601560), Mexico, Western Oaxaca,… (The Bodeian Library, The…)

It's only natural, given their proximity to Mexico and rapidly growing Latino constituencies, that California art museums would be engaged with Latin American material. But the robust lineup of exhibitions, exchanges and educational programs indicates that the days of focusing on historic "treasures" or romanticized figures such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are over.

Museum directors and curators are talking about examining fresh topics and weaving Latin American art into a global fabric — in projects that require inter-departmental collaboration, international networking and community outreach.

From the classic to the grittily contemporary, Latin American art is just about everywhere this spring.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is gearing up for its April 1 opening of "Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico," an exploration of independent kingdoms in southern Mexico that established a vast international trade network. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is planning its June 1 launch of "Santa Ana Condition: John Valadez 1976 to 2011," the first retrospective of the Mexican American artist's paintings, photographs and pastels. In San Francisco, the Museum of Modern Art is opening "Photography in Mexico" on Saturday and preparing a fall installation of Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's interactive video and sound work.

The action is most apparent at LACMA, where director Michael Govan has overseen a quickening parade of exhibitions covering a broad sweep of history. "Children of the Plumed Serpent" will accompany "In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States" in the Resnick Pavilion, in the space recently occupied by "Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World." "Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico" inaugurated the building in 2010. The recent "Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987," a landmark survey of Chicano performance and conceptual art, was part of the Getty-sponsored Pacific Standard Time celebration of Los Angeles' rise as an art center.

LACMA declared a stepped-up interest in Latin American art in 1997 with the acquisition of about 2,000 Mexican modernist works from the collection of Edith and Bernard Lewin. Ilona Katzew, the museum's first curator of Latin American art, came aboard in 2000. Six years later, she joined forces with the late Virginia Fields, a scholar of early Mesoamerican art and archaeology, to establish the Latin American art department. But Katzew and Govan stress that Latin American art has not been put in a cubbyhole.

In Govan's words, "It's a fundamental, central core of our program. We are looking at it as a museum-wide awareness of and investment in our present and future audience and culture."

One result of the initiative, in the last five years, is the acquisition of about 2,000 works: pre-Columbian pieces from Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia; Spanish colonial painting and decorative arts; and modern and contemporary works, including "Burn, Baby, Burn," a monumental painting made in 1965-66 by Chilean-born Roberto Matta.

Among innovative outreach efforts is a series of shows organized by Jose Luis Blondet, an associate curator in the museum's education department, for the largely Latino student body of Charles White Elementary School, housed at the former home of the Otis College of Art and Design near MacArthur Park. Works in a current exhibition, "A Is for Zebra," grapple with alphabets and language in images, ideas, sounds and stories.

"It's a great starting point — first-grade kids in L.A.," Govan says. "In Los Angeles public schools, you have the challenge of teaching kids English as well as the subject matter. Art is a fantastic way to bridge those issues."

Many other institutions have exhibitions in the works. While Long Beach's Museum of Latin American Art continues to offer a steady flow of modern and contemporary exhibitions and performances, at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, curator Alma Ruiz, is extending her lengthy list of Latin American projects with a traveling show of abstraction made from the 1930s to the 1970s; it's expected to open in 2014. Patrick Polk, a curator at UCLA's Fowler Museum, is studying interpretations of death in Latin American artworks for an exhibition, also scheduled for 2014. The USC Fisher Museum, under the leadership of Selma Holo, has its eye on Latin America as well.

Latin American art itself is an enormous bridge — most expansively defined as encompassing works from pre-Columbian times to the present, made by artists of South American, Central American and Mexican heritage. It isn't easy for general art museums to figure out where it belongs or for artists to deal with geographic labels.

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