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A Feisty Preserver Of Puerto Rico's Heritage… A New Map Of Latin America's Avant-Garde

A Feisty Preserver Of Puerto Rico's Heritage

By Geoff Gehman Of The Morning Call

August 5, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Allentown Morning Call. All rights reserved.

HECTOR MENDEZ CARATINI'S photo of a beekeeper-like performer is part of Lehigh University retrospective.

Hector Mendez Caratini is Puerto Rico's unofficial national photographer. For four decades he's chronicled everything from aboriginal rock carvings to liberated patriots, old buildings on coffee plantations to ancient rites on sugar-cane plantations. "El Ojo de la Memoria (Through the Eye of Memory)," a traveling retrospective at Lehigh University, confirms him as a hungry historian, a splendid sociologist and an erratic experimenter.

This exhibition of prints and videos from 1974 to 2003 opened at El Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in San Juan, where Caratini was born in 1949. It was curated by Ricardo Viera, an authority on Latin photographers who supervises Lehigh's galleries and museum operation. Viera and Caratini also collaborated on "Nuestros Caminos/Nuestras Historias (Our Journeys/Our Stories)," a touring show sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. Viera selected new portraits of 25 prominent living Hispanics taken by Caratini and two peers.

Caratini's passion for preserving the past and illuminating the present connects him to Jack Delano (1914-1997), who photographed the Depression in America, his native home, and depressions in Puerto Rico, his adopted home. Like Delano, Caratini monitors stubborn traditions and seismic changes. Like Delano, he likes poor people with dignity. For a 1974-78 series on fading treasures, he shot a magnetic portrait of a sweaty, grimy jibaro, a member of a rustic class renowned for fierce independence and fierce creativity. The silver-gelatin print radiates with the mountain man's wariness and feistiness.

Caratini shows a folksier, splashier side in the 1984 series "Mascarada (Masquerade)." His color images of Afro-Caribbean street parades are every bit as bright as the floridly costumed performers themselves. Especially juicy is a tight horizontal of a man in a mesh mask, a crinkled yellow-and-black outfit and a yellow hat with a wing-like underside. Punchy cropping turns the picture into a mask. It also makes a wannabe beekeeper buzz even louder.

Caratini has an eye for true-blue characters (a praying pilgrim has the leathery face of a shrunken head). He has a nose for traffic-stopping scenes (a man on a motorbike so packed with patriotic souvenirs, it could be a parade float). He has a cunning knack for crossing boundaries. His color prints have the crisp contrast normally associated with black-and-white prints; his platinum images have a zest normally associated with color images. By leaving a platinum-like, parchment haze on silver gelatins, he makes a religious parade even more spiritual, even more exotic.

Sometimes Caratini gets stuck between the natural and the supernatural. He seems trapped in a giclee picture of men whipping the open-house, catacomb tombs of ancestors, part of a 1990-93 series on sugar-cane workers who belong to a voodoo sect called Gaga. An already phantasmagoric scene is blurred by a distractingly distant view, a stormy graininess and a cluttered arrangement. Because some of the worshippers look superimposed, or Photoshopped, the whipping loses a lot of its mysterious sting.

The "Gaga and Vudu" collection is followed by a room with three sets that are very different and very disappointing. Caratini's digital diptychs of santos and portraits of religious rituals could be mistaken for book jackets. Grinning disembodied heads reduce them to cheesy brochures.

A photo essay on the effects of bombing tests on the island of Vieques has little of the international controversy that inspired it: a civilian security guard killed by U.S. Navy explosions. Only an image of a bald victim of uranium contamination is truly searing. Portraits of vaqueros, or Spanish-style cowboys, at the rodeo are nothing more than studied snapshots. It's the one series here where Caratini is a true outsider.

Viera turns spectators into insiders with a handful of smart choices. Caratini's role as folklorist is expanded by his videos of a ceremonial pig slaying and a revolutionary maker of papier-mache masks. The photographer's artistic and ethical concerns dovetail in lovely pictures of endangered flowers he saves at his country home in the mountains of Pulguillas. Creamy, toothy backgrounds elevate these giclees of Heliconia to abstract paintings.

Viera also creates a sly shrine to five nationalists freed after a quarter century in prison. One wall contains Caratini's portraits of four leaders of the Puerto Rican movement for independence. An adjacent wall bears a single picture of their newly liberated hero, Andres Figueroa Cordero, wrapped in a Puerto Rican flag and a frown threatening to break into a grin. Hung on a black background, the black-and-white image transforms Cordero into a street saint.

"El Ojo de la Memoria (Through the Eye of Memory)," retrospective of photographs by Hector Mendez Caratini, through Sept. 12, main gallery, Lehigh University, Zoellner Arts Center, 420 E. Packer Ave., Bethlehem. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday. 610-758-3615,

A New Map Of Latin America's Avant-Garde


August 8, 2004
Copyright © 2004
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

HOUSTON -- IN 1936, the Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres- García drew an upside-down map of South America. He said, "Our north is the south." It was a rallying cry by a returned expatriate to his fellow artists to look to Latin America first for inspiration.

That artists listened can be seen almost 70 years later in "Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America," at the Museum of Fine Arts here through Sept. 12. But the work they created has little to do with the popular image of Latin American art. Visitors to "Inverted Utopias" enter a specially built structure that glows with neon light, changing hues through each of its rooms until eye and body are disoriented. Outside, they try on gloves made of gravel and a double pair of glasses that allows two people to look at each other and see themselves as well. And when visitors encounter anything familiarly Latin – Christian religious symbols, for instance – it is only to see them subverted, as in a sculpture of a crucified Jesus decorating the wings of an Air Force bomber.

This is certainly different from the luxurious and baroque Latin America of Fernando Botero's fat dictators or the magic realism of Frida Kahlo's self-portrait with Diego Rivera's face emblazoned on her forehead. The neon rooms are by the Venezuelan Carlos Cruz-Diez, the gloves and goggles by the Brazilian Lygia Clark, the crucifixion by the Argentinian León Ferrari. These works, created 30 years ago and more, represent experiments as radical as any by artists on other continents. They are on view along with nearly 250 other avant-garde works created between 1920 and 1970, making this the largest collection of such art ever presented. The similarly ample catalog, published by the museum and Yale University Press, is packed with writings and manifestoes of the Latin avant-garde that have never before been translated into English. Small wonder that the Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer has called the show "the most important for Latin American art ever in this country."

The architect of this new presentation of Latin American art is Mari Carmen Ramírez, Wortham curator at the Houston museum. She and the independent curator and writer Héctor Olea have spent more than 15 years imagining, planning and assembling the exhibition. It had a trial run at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, but retooling it for Houston was such a complex process that it will probably not travel to other venues. It represents the culmination of Ms. Ramírez's careerlong effort not only to overturn stereotypes of Latin American art but to expand its place in the history of avant-garde art.

"Far from being dominated by ideas from Paris and New York, Latin American artists were often the innovators," Ms. Ramírez said. "They were doing drip paintings in advance of Pollock, creating language art before the American conceptualists and fashioning shaped canvases decades before Kelly or Stella." But Ms. Ramírez is not content just to alter the pecking order. In her view, Latin Americans created a different kind of modern art, paradoxically practical and utopian. It put social change ahead of beauty, but used beauty and surprise to achieve it.

Thin and intense, with a shock of short hair and dark-rimmed glasses, Ms. Ramírez, who is in her late 40's, brings a pan-Latin arsenal of experience to the battle against what she sees as art-historical provincialism. Born in Puerto Rico, with a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Chicago, Ms. Ramírez researched and organized the Argentinian contribution to conceptual art for the Queens Museum's landmark 1999 exhibition "Global Conceptualism," and during 12 years at the Blanton Museum in Austin and three in Houston, she has mounted exhibitions of work by Torres-García, a seminal artist who melded European and pre-Columbian forms, and Gego, the German immigrant to Venezuela whose wire sculptures are belatedly drawing comparisons to the work of Calder and Richard Serra.

Unlike the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was able to mount a similar roster of works from its own collection at El Museo del Barrio this spring, Houston had to borrow almost everything. Ms. Ramírez has managed to secure work of such importance that Robert Storr, a former curator at the Modern, remarked at a symposium here, "This is the Latin American exhibition we've been waiting for." In a city that is 40 percent Latino, the museum is redoubling its efforts to build up a South American collection, and Ms. Ramírez is leading the charge. "Mari Carmen operates like an armored tank," Mr. Camnitzer says. "She's a remarkable mixture of passion and rigor."

Meanwhile, Latin American art is pouring into the United States, and prices for major works, showcased for more than a decade by auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's, are reaching new levels. Beyond the familiar names, works by Torres-Garçia and the early Brazilian modernist Tarsila do Amaral are hovering at or above a million dollars. Museums from Los Angeles to Boston are hiring Latin curators and even reorganizing their collections to integrate the Americas. What sets Houston apart is money and a willingness to spend it in a focused way over a long period. Ms. Ramírez holds an endowed chair and is acquiring major works of Latin American modernism. She is also the director of Houston's newly created International Center for the Arts of the Americas, a program of exhibitions, publications and scholarship. The director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Peter Marzio, estimates that the center will cost the museum at least $40 million over the next 10 years.

Not everyone is happy with Ms. Ramírez's abstract and conceptual version of Latin American art. During a recent symposium at the museum, she was harangued by a visitor for not including so recognizably "Latin" an artist as Frida Kahlo. Yet "Inverted Utopias" proposes its own Latin character. Many of the artists lived under chaotic and repressive regimes or in exile. Art was their weapon and magic wand. It was always political. Mr. Ferrari wrote his "Letter to a General" in curlicued, mesmerizing and unintelligible script. The Brazilian Hélio Oiticica created anarchic, samba-inspired interactive performances that implicitly resisted all forms of control. And Mr. Cruz-Diez sought to shock people into a freer more creative state by immersing them in light and color.

"These artists are subversive," Ms. Ramírez said, "but their goal is to go beyond the art object, to embrace communal experiences and, at the most extreme, to risk dissolving art into politics."  

Lyle Rexer is the author of "How to Look at Outsider Art," to be published next spring by Abrams.

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