Latin American art comes full circle in Cosmopolitan Routes at MFAH
In a side gallery of the new Museum of Fine Arts, Houston exhibition, Cosmopolitan Routes, a framed artwork seemingly rests backwards on the floor. Surrounded by artfully hung paintings, the grounded work glares as if the exhibition installers missed a spot.
The piece is "Verso (Woman with Parrot)" by Vik Muniz, and is an exact replica of the back of Renoir's "Woman with Parrot" as it stands in an American collection. It's part of a series in which Muniz took seven of the most iconic paintings in American collections and had their backs faithfully reproduced, down to every screw, label and slight imperfection.
"This is just one example of a Latin American artist reacting against a very classical subject matter," explains exhibition curator Gilbert Vicario.
Indeed, while the exhibition surveys 10 years of Latin American art collecting by MFAH donors, the intellectual scope is not limited to our neighboring continent. Instead, the sequence of roughly chronologically-organized galleries speaks to the dialogue between modern and contemporary Latin American artists and the world as a whole.
"The exhibition is based on this notion of the cosmopolitan routes taken by the donors' travel, how much travel curators embark on, and thinking about how artists move around the world and what influences them," Vicario elaborates. "We're trying to make convergences between all of those aspects."
A 1916 cubist canvas by Diego Rivera in the first gallery places this theme in its earliest context as it traces Rivera's education in Europe and that basis' fusion with his Mexican identity. Xul Solar also functions prominently among these "Pioneers of Modernism," as the European influences of Paul Klee and British magician Aleister Crowley emerge on his paintings' mystical etchings. Similarly, a selection of Joaquin Torres-García's grid-based works offers insight on how the Uruguayan patriarch of the "School of the South" imbued De Stijl's formalism with a Latin American vitality.
"The more you study Latin American art, the more you find it is connected with the rest of the world, especially European art," argues Vicario, a curator at the Des Monies Art Center and former assistant Latin American art curator at the MFAH.
The transatlantic dialogue's dichotomy particularly evinces itself in a section dedicated to Surrealist currents. Beside Frida Kahlo's "Garden of Delights"-esque "Moses" stands a painting by Lea Carrington, who absconded to Mexico in the 1940s after a bad breakup with Max Ernst. Beside that painting is a dream of symbolism-heavy automatism by Alice Rahon, a French painter who also found artistic refuge in Mexico. The European-Mexican infusion continues with German-born architect Matthias Goeritz, whose gilded "Mensaje dorado" is a direct reflection of Yves Klein's explorations in metallic canvases.
Cosmopolitan Routes isn't a textbook exhibition; instead, contemporary pieces punctuate the rooms of early 20th century artworks. Standing before a collection of midcentury paintings is Betsabeé Romero's "Guerreros en cautiverio (Captive Warriors)," inspired by the car tire landfills that rise on the outskirts of Mexico City. For this 2006 work, the artist carved out sections with Pre-Columbian shapes which she filled with gold leaf. The insertion illustrates the legacy of indigenous cultures traceable in Latin American surrealism up to the present.
The interaction between the United States and Latin America portrayed in the exhibition's 175 objects touches on heavy subjects relating to corrupt economies and drug cartels. Cocoa leaves and dollar bills on paper are the chosen media for Colombian artist Miguel Angel Rojas in two collages. The specter of European aesthetics looms large in Rojas' "David 8," for which the artist has photographed an idealized male figure in a classic Greek contrapposto, but the model is in fact a Colombian soldier with an amputated leg. Doris Salcedo's "Atrabiliarios (Defiant)" are installations in which the shoes of abducted persons killed in cocaine-fueled wars have been inserted into the gallery's walls and covered with a translucent cow bladder sheath.
Vicario spotlighted the work of Emilio Chapela Perez in a FotoFest exhibition at New World Museum in March of this year. A Chapela installation here at first appears to be a replica of German artist Gerhard Richter's color studies from the 1960s, but is in fact 64 small panels of photographs of popular soft drinks sold in Mexico. In a commentary on how American consumer culture has invaded beyond its borders, the artist presents a zoomed-in lens on Coca-Cola bottles and neon-hued energy drinks.
Houston's own cosmopolitan role in the contemporary art sphere is credited with the inclusion of work by Argentinian artist Nicola Constantino, a graduate of the Glassell Core Program, and Houston-based artist Dario Robleto. Both reflect on materials and mortality: In "A Rosary For Rhythm," Dario has collected in a jar soldiers' rosaries, crucifixes excavated from battlefields, glass produced from lightening strikes when heat blasts melted surrounding sand, ground trinitite, glass produced from the first nuclear test explosion, military buttons, metals, excavated bullets, shrapnel and military blankets. Constantino is commenting on economy and its relationship to animals in "Iron Box," in which a chrome fetus or newborn sheep is trapped inside an aluminum box.
This exhibition triumphantly traces a turning point in the art world's consideration of Latin American art. Vicario remembers a mere decade ago, when scholars viewed Mexican art as little beyond Day of the Dead crafts and the MFAH only held a few odd pieces from the genre. Since the museum established its department in 2000, the collection has grown to almost 450 works under the confident eye of Mari Carmen Ramírez, Wortham curator of Latin American art and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas. In the process, the nuances of this vast region's cultural, historic and political underpinnings have manifest inside the MFAH galleries.
"Latin America isn't a race," argues Vicario. "It's not a very specific thing, but a geographic and cultural framework." Similarly, as Cosmopolitan Routes illustrates, Latin American modernism isn't a clearly defined area of art, but draws and exerts influence upon myriad nations.
Latin American art's trajectory can't even be constrained within one exhibition: Across the MFAH campus, at the Glassell School of Art, an exhibition of contemporary video art features British artist, Phil Collins, whose tragicomedy "Soy mi madre (I am my Mother)" riffs on the Mexican cultural phenomenon, the telenovela, illustrating the genre's international entertainment pull.
Although not the work of a Latin American artist, "Soy mi madre" serendipitously connects what the museum's Latin American art department has been working on for a decade: claiming the undeniable relevance of Latin America in contemporary culture. It's a route worth taking.