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Latino Still Life

by Taylor Holliday

March 17, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

Latin culture may be hot now (think Carlos Santana sweeping the awards and Ricky Martin dancing in a ring of fire at the Grammies), but despite Americans' love affair with Latin music, faces and food, most are still pretty unfamiliar with Latin American art.

If El Museo del Barrio and other expanding Hispanic museums around the country have their way, however, it's only a matter of time before their art is just as much a part of the cultural landscape.

Located on the upper reaches of Fifth Avenue's Museum Mile and the outer edge of East Harlem, El Museo brings these two worlds together in more than the symbolic way. The museum was founded in 1969 by local Puerto Rican artists and activists as a showcase for their community's art. Since then it has diversified along with the neighborhood, now presenting work by all the many Latino groups that increasingly call New York home, while in the past five years doubling its attendance.

With recent infusions of cash from the Ford Foundation and the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone enabling it to establish an endowment fund, expand its gift shop, open a cafe and restore an on-site 1920s theater for a planned program of music and dance, El Museo is revving up to take its place in the Latin boom.

Already, to celebrate its 30th anniversary, the museum has opened its most ambitious show ever, "Latin American Still Life: Reflections of Time and Place" (through May 21). Guest curators Clayton Kirking and Edward Sullivan (who debuted the exhibition last year at the Katonah Museum of Art in a rich and mostly Latino-free suburban center north of Manhattan) hope they will make visitors think about whether there is "a special character" to the work here that marks it as Latin American.

Their survey begins with Francisco Oller's traditional 1893 oil paintings of tabletop fruit displays, one featuring bunches of green bananas, the other green coconuts, not in bowls, but still on their branches as if freshly plucked from trees in Puerto Rico's cordillera.

The show then delves into the Mexican School, whose artists were highly interested in picturing ordinary Mexicans and the objects of their ordinary lives. But the best of these artists went far beyond folklore. Diego Rivera painted his Cubist "Still Life With Bread and Fruit" in 1917, while he was still studying in France. Though it predates his creation of a distinctly Mexican style of painting after his return home in 1922, its bread and earthenware pitcher subtly hint at "Mexican-ness." By 1951, his wife Frida Kahlo was turning people (herself and Diego, no doubt) into anthropomorphic "Weeping Coconuts" surrounded by the colors of the Mexican flag.

Similarly, Rufino Tamayo chose the Mexican national plant for his 1928 "Still Life With Corn," and in 1943 Maria Izquierdo painted a pink-and-blue home altar presided over by the Mexican national saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Surprisingly, the only photographer appearing in the section covering the first half of the century is the Italian-born Tina Modotti; one wonders why the Mexican great Manuel Alvarez Bravo and his image of a nude woman surrounded by cacti -- a symbolic still life if ever there was one -- is missing.

Naturally enough in a culture very comfortable with death, Latin American still life (naturaleza muerta, or "dead nature"), would often dwell on the dead. Juan Soriano's nina is laid out for viewing; as is Colombian Alejandro Obregon's young man, in homage to a 1950s massacre of students in Bogota. And Alberto Gironella's skeleton, or animated calavera, makes a glutton of himself at the table.

Culture-specific signs are more subtle in the geometric Constructivist works of the Uruguayan Joaquin Torres-Garcia (and his followers in the Torres-Garcia Workshop, active from the 1940s to '60s). But they are often there, as in his adoption of pre-Columbian symbols and shapes to fill out his characteristic grid patterns.

The second half of the 20th century turned increasingly diverse in its methods and styles, but a revival of the representational left open a wide window for easily recognizable local motifs. Though the Chilean-born Moroccan-based Claudio Bravo makes no reference to his homeland in his superrealist still life of an assemblage of lightbulbs (1971), the genial surrealist Colombian Fernando Botero evokes his country's violence with the pig's head laughing at its own slaughter in "The Butcher's Table" (1969). The Brazilian Antonio Henrique Amaral also makes food political: In his "Battlefield" (1974), painted during a military dictatorship, a phalanx of menacing forks holds only shreds of banana.

Many of the Mexican artists who emerged in the 1980s sought inspiration in the Mexican School of earlier decades, linking themselves to their elders in a kindred spirit of mexicanidad. Elena Climent's painting "Altar of the Dead With Relatives" recalls Izquierdo's altar still life, though it's been personalized with "photos" of the artist's grandparents, both Catholic and Jewish. Nahum Zenil follows Kahlo's lead by inserting his own Indian face into altar paintings (retablos), for example as the face of Jesus in his "Last Supper" (1991). And Roberto Marquez's 1998 scene of a man collapsed in an endless desert, an eerie arrangement of hiking boots and apples around him, seems an updated reference to the death still lifes of earlier generations.

The recent photographs are no less saturated in symbolism, particularly the Brazilian Mario Cravo Neto's black-and-white close-ups of man struggling with nature, only a dark naked torso and hands visible in contrast to the magnificent bird they subdue.

The show ends with an actual altar the size of an armoire by Chicana installation artist Amalia Mesa-Bains. Amid the altar's creche, the calavera print, the personal photos, lies a crumpled copy of the 1848 Treaty of Hidalgo that ceded half of Mexico's lands to the U.S.

If these 85 still lifes don't convince you they're a palpably Latino genre, walk over to El Museo's small central gallery for an exhibition of 19th- and 20th-century devotional folk art from Puerto Rico and Mexico. Here are Puerto Rican santos, miniature carvings of saints, from the museum's own stellar collection. And Mexican retablos, religious scenes, normally handpainted on tin. Both forms found a place in the household altars of the religious, who displayed them along with photos of deceased family members, candles and, on the Day of the Dead, flowers and offerings of food.

Perhaps most poignant are the retablos made as ex-votos, in which a believer gives thanks to a saint for a miracle by painting a picture of it. A particularly beautiful ex-voto, dated Christmas Eve, 1950, shows a bus high on the hill above the twinkling lights of Mexico City, a full moon in the sky, the volcanoes in the distance, and a handpainted narrative from the thankful driver that tells how, after the brakes went out on his bus on a dangerous curve, he prayed to the Guadalupana and she miraculously stopped the bus, saving all the people onboard.

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