“Disruptive” is not usually a word museum directors use to give high praise to a new exhibition, but Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America is not exactly a sedate show from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Director Gary Tinterow seemed particularly proud of that fact during a preview peek of the exhibition.
Early in the walk-through, Tinterow’s own remarks about the 32 works by 21 renowned artists from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela were sometimes drowned out by that art itself, or more specifically the nearby noise of metal discs hitting gunpowder dusted detonators in the video Mecha by Argentinean-born Miguel Ángel Ríos.
Not appearing to mind being upstaged by the bangs coming from behind the partition, Tinterow went on to describe the importance of the art works drawn mainly from the MFAH’s own permanent collection.
“What we see here is another perspective of globalism, of artists who emerged from a particular culture, but then fan out to contribute to this extraordinary conversation that’s happening at biennales and museums all around the world,” he explained.
The provocative title of the exhibition comes from its curator Mari Carmen Ramírez, Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas, who believes all the pieces have two key commonalities.
“These are artists who use beauty not as an end in itself, as many artists in the past did, but as a tool to seduce the viewer and then to engage him and stimulate him to think about issues that are most of the time outside the realm of art. They are tough, social, political or culture issues,” Ramírez described.
To get to those “very tough issues” the artists work with unusual, nontraditional, perhaps even disruptive, material to create that beauty.
“They are using all sorts of everyday material,” said Ramírez. “They are using unexpected materials, tools and strategies to carry the message through.”
This is an exhibition that beguiles from afar, even as the material used to create the work might startle viewers as they move closer.
What looks almost like butterflies fluttering across a wall near the exhibition’s entrance we find are actually leaves as we take a step towards Broadway by the Colombian-born artist Miguel Ángel Rojas. Take another step to read the wall text and then comes the reveal that those leaves are from the coca plant and suddenly their delicate migration along the wall echoes with the story of underground economies built on the illegal cocaine trade.
Walking through the galleries, viewers might feel something like a cycle of seduction, disruption and engagement that Ramírez described, as the beauty of the work lures them closer only to surprise with unexpected material and a call to ponder and investigate issues of life and death embedded metaphorically, and sometimes even literally in the art. This cycle of engagement was something I felt happening again and again as I explored the exhibition.
For me, the best example of this siren’s call to contemplate some deeper issue beyond the initial wonder of a piece happened while I gazed into a constellations of floating starfish a few galleries into the exhibition.
I could have spent hours bathing in the loveliness of Woven Water: Submarine Landscape by María Fernanda Cardoso, until the thought hit me that these weren’t some sculptured replicas of starfish but actual death echinoderms suspended above me, dried and lifeless, just like the thousands of bits of ocean creatures tourists buy every year as souvenirs to take home as reminders of their seaside holidays.
From bundles of human hair woven together to create a Cuban flag (Statistics by Tania Bruguera); to Lego blocks sculpted into the shape of a forgotten Soviet era monument (Podgaric Toy by Los Carpinteros); to portraits of the missing and likely assassinated Colombians painted in coffee on a canvas of sugar cubes (Pixels by Óscar Muñoz); to maps of forgotten places painted on mattresses (Le Sacren by Guillermo Kuitca), the works pull viewers in, startle us with their medium and then ask us to question and confront deeper issues of war, gender, violence and Latin American and global history.
Yet throughout, the beauty remains, a disturbing perhaps even disruptive beauty, but wonders of light, colors and forms all the same.
Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America runs until February 28, 2016 at the MFAH.