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Art, History Detail Legacy Of SpaniardsVariety Show An Ambitious Oakland Museum Exhibit Reflects The Diverse, Rich Nature Of Latino Art

Art, History Detail Legacy Of Spaniards

By Dennis Rockstroh

November 9, 2002
Copyright © 2002 San Jose Mercury News. All rights reserved. 

Every time I enjoy a good steak and a fine wine, I thank my Spanish ancestors.

Because many of the things we take for granted started to arrive in the Americas with the Spanish in the 16th century.

Place names such as San Jose, Santa Cruz and Milpitas (little cornfield) are Spanish, as is much of our architecture. The Spanish conquest brought cattle, horses, sheep, goats, pigs, alfalfa and some key parts of the food pyramid -- fruits, nuts and vegetables.

I bring this up because I have just returned from the Oakland Museum of California and a visit to ``Arte Latino: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.'' It will be there until Jan. 26.

It is a peek into the heart and soul of Latino culture in America, a legacy of that Spanish conquest.

For centuries Spain and much of the Old World poked and probed the Americas, the New World. But in the 16th century, Spanish explorers, soldiers and missionaries began to settle what was to become the United States at four frontiers -- Florida, New Mexico, Louisiana and California.

For more than 300 years these explorers pushed into this new land, intermingling with the already polyglot native population.

Of course, Spain's impact in the New World was more than steak and wine. The lasting legacy of centuries of Spanish rule and exploration was the creation of the country's Latino population.

Triumphs, troubles

The art exhibit at the Oakland museum comes from Latino artists across the Americas. The 64 paintings, sculptures and photographs are samplings of the rich traditions from New York, Puerto Rico, the Southwest and California.

The display covers a vast area of Latino experience. There is the religious art of the missions, an altar to the successes of the farm movement, and expressions of frustration in today's American barrios.

A chandelier by Pepon Osorio hangs in the middle of the gallery decorated with swags of pearls, plastic babies, palm trees, monkeys, dominoes and even a priest. These are symbols of the dreams, hopes, humor and hardships of Puerto Ricans living in the New York barrio.

There is an altar-like display for the movie star Dolores Del Rio, a painting of the death of journalist Ruben Salazar at the hands of the police in Los Angeles in 1970, and a giant, mad, spittle-spewing ``Barrio Dog,'' surrounded by bones he cannot get to.

To put into perspective these tributes to Latino triumphs and tribulations, you must also visit the nearby history display about the Spanish conquest of California.

`God, Glory and Gold'

The museum's history section is a broad look at California's past with everything from re-created native Indian settings to Mickey Mouse and a 1950s beach scene complete with sand from Santa Cruz.

Just behind the adobe wall near the entrance you will find the display titled ``New Spain: God, Glory and Gold.''

As you look over the historic record of the missions and ranchos, keep in mind what historian and teacher Charles Wollenberg wrote about the Spanish influence in California:

``The initial Spanish settlement of California in 1769 begins an important northwest movement of Hispanic people and influence that has periodically ebbed and flowed, but has been a vital part of California life ever since.

``Although California was formally a Spanish possession between 1769 and 1821, functionally it was a colony of Mexico.

``With the exception of a few Franciscan friars and military officers, virtually all the `Spanish' settlers were in fact natives of Mexico. They were generally recruited from the lower classes and were of mixed racial origin -- mestizos and mulattoes.

``Thus, California's heritage of multiethnic migration begins in 1769.''

And continues today.

Variety Show An Ambitious Oakland Museum Exhibit Reflects The Diverse, Rich Nature Of Latino Art

By Robert Taylor

November 10, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA). All rights reserved. 

You don't need to look at a single painting, sculpture or photograph to know there's something extraordinary going on in the new exhibit at the Oakland Museum. Just read the gallery's checklist of artists, whose family names include Almaraz, Campeche, Carrillo, Garza, Montoya, Ortega, Romero, Trujillo and Valdez.

This is "Arte Latino," an exhibition of 64 works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a museum that is not as well known as that Washington institution's treasure-trove of historic documents, inventions and even airplanes.

In the same way, this traveling Smithsonian show explores the unexpected. Whatever a visitor's preconception of Latino art, the exhibition may expand, even explode, those notions.

For a mainstream audience in the United States, "Latino art" may mean murals, political posters, Day of the Dead artifacts and Frida Kahlo. "Arte Latino" offers a broader view of more than 200 years of art, from paintings and sculptures that resemble Old World masterpieces to a stylized farm workers' altar from the 1960s and a monumental granite sculpture created in 1999.

The artists include men and women born in the Unites States as well as immigrants from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba and other Latin American countries. They work in an astonishing array of styles and materials: carved wood, fiberglass, acrylic, metal, woven wool, neon, satin drapery -- and even a chandelier encrusted with miniature toys.

There is an ofrenda shrine created by Amalia Mesa-Bains to honor actress Dolores del Rio that looks like the actress' fabulous boudoir in her movie, "Madame du Barry." There is everything including the kitchen sink in "El Patio de Mi Casa," an installation exploring Cuban-American artist Maria Brito's past and present.

Religious icons include a carved, painted wood Madonna as old as the 17th century, an 18th century painting of a saint by the son of a Puerto Rican slave, and Emanuel Martinez's farm workers' altar used by Cesar Chavez in a Central Valley field in 1968.

There are social, cultural and political statements that can't be missed, such as Mel Casas' "Humanscape 141: Barrio Dog" and Angel Rodriguez-Diaz's "The Protagonist of an Endless Story," a dramatic, monumental 12-by-15-foot painting of Chicana author Sandra Cisneros.

Other works are open to a variety of interpretations. Carmen Lomas Garza's "Camas para Suenos" (Beds for Dreams) depicts Carmen and her sister on the roof of their house looking at the moon, a scene that suggests Marc Chagall's fantasies.

Judith F. Baca's "Las Tres Marias" (The Three Marys) includes a full-length portrait of a serious young Chicana, a portrait of Baca as a streetwise "Pachuca" of an earlier era--and in the center, a mirror to reflect the viewer.

Ruben Trejo's "Codex for the 21st Century" is a 20-foot-wide white canvas holding an arrangement of 100 pairs of blackened nails twisted around one another. The nails might be wrestlers, dancers, people struggling to break free or even, as Trejo suggests, figures from the "Kama Sutra."

Pepon Osorio encrusts a chandelier with hundreds of found objects that recall his childhood in Puerto Rico and his later years in New York's Spanish Harlem and South Bronx. But anyone can happily explore Osorio's dizzying fantasy world of tiny toys, plastic fruit, animals, palm trees, religious figures, swags of pearls and loops of fringe.

The curators of "Arte Latino," Helen Lucero and Andrew Connors, explain that their original mission was to collect these works (among a total of 500) for the Smithsonian American Art Museum's permanent collection. Initially, they weren't thinking of a single themed exhibition.

"I think it's important to state the 'Arte Latino' is not a unified vision, but a small part of the diverse whole of human experience," Connors says. "To call it an exhibition of Latino art is to identify the makers of the art, but does not limit its relevance."

Chiori Santiago, who interviewed Lucero and Connors for the Oakland Museum magazine and has covered Bay Area art for 20 years, says it isn't easy to define "Latino art." It could be art created by anyone in the world who speaks Spanish, she says, "but it's hard to link anything among that huge diversity of cultures."

The Smithsonian exhibition does display "a shared sensibility," Santiago says. "There is the mysticism that comes from the melding of indigenous religions and Catholicism," she says. "There is a sensibility that deals with the conquerors and the conquered -- you see it in Mexican art a lot, almost a secret underground war that continues to deal with the battle for power and respect."

Santiago says that the Smithsonian exhibition, which includes works by several Bay Area artists, represents local as well as national "Arte Latino." "It is a really good portrayal of the spectrum, to which Bay Area artists have contributed a great deal. We are so fortunate to live here, because we are the first to question the status quo."

The project curator for the exhibition at the Oakland Museum, Suzanne Baizerman, is impressed by the diversity of the artwork.

"The art is very powerful, well selected, and it represents all kinds of perspectives -- political, questions of identity and immigration," Baizerman says. The artists' material is also remarkable for its variety, another example of the "total pluralism" of the art world at the end of the 20th century.

Baizerman said the Oakland Museum's Latino advisory committee, which has been involved with the Day of the Dead exhibitions each year, encouraged the museum to present a broader picture of Latino culture.

The museum's executive director, Dennis Power, believed the Smithsonian's "Arte Latino" would be the perfect choice. The show is dramatically installed at the museum, and a number of music and art events are planned through its run, including artist demonstration weekends.

"Art museums in general have been pushing for years to have more people represented in their exhibitions," Baizerman says. "The idea is that people can find themselves in the artwork, and the Smithsonian is trying to assume a leadership role.

"The Oakland Museum used to be called 'the people's museum,' and I think there is still that spirit of being very responsive to our audience," she says.


WHAT: "Arte Latino: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum"

WHERE: Oakland Museum of California, 10th and Oak streets, Oakland

WHEN: Through Jan. 26; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays; open to 9 p.m. first Friday of the month

HOW MUCH: $6; $4 seniors and students

CONTACT: 510-238-2200,

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